An “obesity epidemic” is bankrupting the NHS, a former consultant surgeon has warned in the Lords.
Tory Lord McColl of Dulwich said obesity was the cause of many conditions putting ever increasing demands on the service.
And he suggested ministers could learn from the French system of funding healthcare where patients pay the doctor and get reimbursed if they cannot afford it.
In a debate on funding health and social care in England, Lord McColl, former professor and director of surgery at Guy’s Hospital, said: “The obesity epidemic is the worst epidemic to afflict this country for 90 years.
“It’s killing millions, costing billions and the cure is free - simply eat and drink fewer calories.”
Many conditions at the root of increasing demands on the NHS, like diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks, were caused by obesity, he said.
But the Department of Health and health ministers had “misled Parliament” by stating that all the calories we eat are spent on exercise.
“This is totally untrue,” he said.
“This enormous obesity epidemic is bankrupting the NHS.”
He told peers: “We could learn from the French who pay the doctor up-front and if they can’t afford it are reimbursed.”
Lord McColl called for a cross-party group to be set up to find a funding solution “free of petty party politics and the shibboleths which have so bedevilled the NHS for so long”.
Former Commons speaker Baroness Boothroyd warned the NHS was “fighting for its life” and urged ministers to call time on tourist “fraudsters” who exploit the healthcare system.
She said a “culture of denial and indifference” allowed serious problems to reach crisis point before being faced up to.
The independent cross-bench peer said chaos had been caused in hospitals and surgeries by overseas visitors not entitled to use the NHS but doing so and avoiding paying.
“We don’t know how much this racket costs,” she said.
“We’ve never known the true cost because successive governments didn’t want to know and said so.
“We almost advertise our willingness to be taken for an international trolley ride.”
Lady Boothroyd, who has repeatedly pressed for tighter rules to prevent overseas visitors unlawfully obtaining free treatment, said the problem was costing the country millions of pounds.
“The NHS is bleeding and needs emergency treatment.
“It’s time to face reality.
“The fraudsters who exploit it have more than their fair share of our resources, our doctors and our hospitals.
“We can no longer deny what we know to be true.
“It’s time to say enough.”
Opening the debate, former consultant obstetrician and independent crossbencher Lord Patel said the NHS remained the “most successful and envied health service” in the world.
But despite increased funding it faced a funding gap and the service would have to change to meet growing demand at a time of financial cutbacks.
“The public has a strong attachment to the founding principles of the NHS and won’t accept radical change to the current model of funding. The only chance of success is an incremental approach,” he said.
Labour former health spokesman Lord Filkin said there was going to be “massive increase in demand” for NHS services in the coming years.
“We will have to have a debate not only about service redesign but also how we fund the NHS going forward,” he said.
“For my part I hope we abide by the principles of the fundamental services being free at the point of use.”
Tory Lord Cormack called for people to be charged for hospital stays and for seeing their doctors.
“Money has to come from somewhere and it cannot just come from taxation, so we do have to look at things which we have not been prepared to look at before,” he said.
“Charges and proper charges for people who are in full-time work when they see the doctor. It would do something for the absentee rates as well.
“We have to look at bed charges for hospital and that might increase the dignity of a hospital stay.”
Lord Crisp, the former chief executive of the NHS, said major savings could be made by cutting the amount spent on staff.
The independent crossbench peer said: “Reducing the drug budget by 10 per cent saves 1 per cent of the NHS budget. Reducing staffing by 10 per cent saves 6-7 per cent of the NHS budget.
“We need to be much bolder and braver about who does what within the NHS, particularly when we are aware of what new technology allows be done.
“We know how we can do that well. There is plenty of evidence of what is called task shifting or substitution, using people who are less trained, less skilled but properly supervised to do things.”
Former Cabinet minister and doctor Lord Owen said the amount spent on the NHS out of each person’s tax should be marked on their return.
“They can break it down further into what comes straight from tax and what from national insurance,” the independent crossbench peer said.
He said national insurance could be seen to be the main mechanism for funding the NHS.
“If that was open and earmarked and people felt that money was going to the National Health Service, there would be much greater acceptance,” he said.