NHS hospitals are deliberately increasing waiting times so some patients will go private or die before they are seen, according to a new report.
Patients in England have a legal right under the NHS Constitution to start their hospital treatment within 18 weeks of referral by their GP.
But a new study says even though hospitals could see patients sooner, many are saving cash by introducing minimum waits. This means patients can be left in pain for longer than necessary, while others choose to go private or simply die first.
"We were also told that increasing waiting times for patients did have the potential to save money overall," the report by the Co-operation and Competition Panel (CCP) said.
"Experience suggests that if patients wait longer then some will remove themselves from the list or will no longer require treatment when it is finally offered. A primary care trust may therefore save money overall by increasing waiting times. We understand that patients will remove themselves from the waiting list either by dying or by paying for their own treatment at private sector providers."
One PCT told the CCP it "sought to increase average waiting times from 13 to 16 weeks as a result of the PCT's worsening financial position".
The authors of the study said that when treatment is delayed, more complex and expensive care can be required so money may not be saved in the long run. "At an individual level, making patients wait longer than necessary for treatment is likely to impose greater pain and inconvenience than is necessary on patients."
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has abolished central monitoring of the 18-week target but has told health trusts they must ensure waiting times are kept low.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: "The suggestion that it could save money because patients will remove themselves from the list by going private or dying is a callous and cynical manipulation of people's lives and should not be tolerated."
David Stout, director of primary care trust network in the NHS Confederation, told the Today programme patients needed more information from their doctors about how long they would have to wait. He said: "Firstly, I think you need to put it in context, so 10 years ago people were waiting longer than 18 months. Now we have an average waiting time from referral to treatment of about eight weeks so we have improved performance very, very significantly over the last few years."