updated 6/10/2009 4:09:46 PM ET 2009-06-10T20:09:46

Britain's universal health care system faces a multibillion pound deficit that could force the government to skimp on dentistry, fertility treatments, and cutting-edge drugs, a report said Wednesday.

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The projected 15 billion pound ($24 billion) hole in the National Health Service's finances threatens cuts to the country's biggest employer and the cornerstone of the British welfare state. While the British government boasts that it has tripled investment in the country's health infrastructure over the past 12 years, the report, published by a confederation of health care providers, said the health service now faces an important test of its promise to offer free health care to all Britons from the cradle to the grave.

"Having had seven years of plenty it now looks like seven years of famine from 2011 onwards," the NHS Confederation's head of policy, Nigel Edwards, told the BBC. "We are really going to have to think very deeply and carefully about everything we do and subject it to very rigorous scrutiny — and enlist all of our doctors, our front line clinical staff in rethinking the way we do things."

The health service is likely to be squeezed by the global recession, the costs of managing an aging population, and spiraling drug costs, according to the study, drawn up to sound the alarm on the service's finances. It also predicted that the downturn could increase the burden on hospitals by feeding into mental health problems and alcoholism.

Combined with the prospect of a faltering pound currency and rising energy prices, the report warned that the health service could find itself unable to cover up to 3 percent of its annual costs starting in 2011-2012. Over the next five years, the unfunded outlay could rise to 15 billion pounds, the report said.

The British government offers health care for free at the point of need, a service pioneered by the leftist Labour Party in 1948. In the six decades since, the health service has grown to employ about 1.5 million people. Its promise of universal medical care, from cradle to grave, is taken for granted by Britons to such an extent that politicians — even fiscal conservatives — are loathe to attack it.

The health service's budget is predicted to top 100 billion pounds ($163 billion) next year, the report said, and with government borrowing already at record highs Sikora said providing everyone with the highest standard of care was an unsustainable proposition.

Health officials already control costs by having the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence agency weed out drugs too costly to be offered for free, leaving patients who need the priciest treatments to pay for them out of pocket. Some of the institute's decisions — like the refusal to cover Sutent, a relatively new and effective cancer drug — have outraged patients.

Other parts of the report said the NHS might have to reduce its coverage of dental work, already a sore point among Britons, some of whom are so frustrated with the state of the U.K.'s publicly funded dentistry that they've turned to Eastern European practitioners. In vitro fertilization treatments also could face the chop.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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