Have we discussed the Welsh NHS lately? I thought not. But prescription charges are to be abolished in the principality on April 1, a month ahead of the Welsh Assembly elections and the day before Wales's new pub smoking ban starts.

I think we should. It will also assist this column's policy of not panicking about avian flu.

By chance I heard first minister Rhodri Morgan speak at a private function the other day. Now 67, he is always charming; an articulate romantic whose political style so annoyed Tony Blair that he tried to block his rise to power in Cardiff. Not something that has done Mr Morgan harm.

Nor has his resistance to building large new hospitals (he calls them 'behomeths') under the private finance initiative. Even critics admit that NHS finances are less over-stretched in Wales as a result, though re-structuring is in the air.

One consequence, Welsh Lib Dems tell me, is that the Welsh executive has been 'less creative
up-front on diagnostic issues and orthopaedic treatment.'

If you remember, the Welsh NHS went its own way after devolution in 1999, so that in the last Assembly elections in 2003, hospital waiting lists were the No 1 issue. There was tension about getting operations in big English hospitals: Chester, Shrewsbury, even Bristol, just across the border. Bits of Wales actually belong to English NHS trusts as a result.

What Rhodri's team (everyone calls him Rhodri) on Cardiff Bay wanted to do was tackle public health and GP service first, cheaper and quicker, they said. The words 'social justice' crop up a lot, always popular in Wales.

Rhodri's vision, he calls it 'Classic Labour', was to foster 'scandal-free competence' and local self-confidence.

There is much less of the market in the Welsh NHS as a result and the Labour minority administration - 29 votes to 30 if all Welsh assembly members (WAMs) turn up - announced the other day that all cleaning services will be brought back in-house if it wins on May 3. All but one already are, but no more tendering. Wales has the lowest UK rate of MRSA by the way, if that's relevant.

Morgan aides talk of local health boards, which include social services, trying to foster community involvement in the search for 'joined-up solutions.' WAMs and councillors sit on the boards. Pilot schemes are underway under the 2005 Designed for Life reform programme, which are described as aspirational, idealistic and risky - 'letting go of territoriality' by Cardiff Bay officials.

Labour MPs at Westminster take a more hard-nosed view. Only two Welsh Labour MPs voted against foundation hospital medicine for England, they say. That's because they could see how Rhodri's good work at primary care level had neglected waiting lists and times - which were tumbling in England.

Voters piled pressure on WAMs and MPs. Only last week Cardiff's Western Mail carried a huge spread about a breast cancer victim whose 'inhumane' treatment by managers in a local hospital was commonplace, she protested.

Hence the pressure from Welsh Secretary Peter Hain to follow England's lead in cutting waiting lists and times. 'They had to look reality in the teeth,' says one WAM.

So the latest Welsh NHS reform document (along side an extra£55mn for ambulance radios and other goodies) notes that they are on track to cut waiting times from GP referral to treatment to no more than 26 weeks by December 2009 - not quite England's 18-week goal, but better than the 'three to five years' not so long ago, a Labour minister tells me. 'They're getting on top of it,' says my Lib Dem source.

Where do free scrips feature here? Only the Tories voted against the move in the Assembly, though others were critical of the£20m bill: was it really the top priority? The cost of each scrip had already been cut in stages to£3. But Rhodri says it's fairer to the poor who can't afford their medicine. 'It's popular and Nye Bevan would have wanted it,' explains a WAM.

So when you get close, you get the sense that both sides of the Rhodri/Patricia Hewitt divide have things to learn from each other. But Welsh hearts are still with Nye.

Michael White is an assistant editor (politics) of The Guardian.