A quarter of a million more people each year could be sent to private hospitals paid for by the NHS under new plans to cut waiting times.
Health service bosses will trial an option for patients to have private treatment if they have been kept waiting more than six-and-a-half months.
Based on the number of people who waited longer than 26 weeks for non-urgent care last year, this could affect hundreds of thousands of patients.
The move is a bid to cut down the NHS waiting list which, in England, is around the longest it has ever been at more than four million people.
Hospitals strapped for cash and staff are simply unable to clear the backlog of patients needing hospital care and thousands waiting more than a year to get it.
The NHS waiting list for non-urgent treatment is at its second-longest ever, with 4.16million people waiting, second only to 4.18m in October last year
Under proposed new NHS plans patients left waiting for 26 weeks or more for non- urgent care, such as joint replacement ops, could be offered private treatment.
Around 10,000 and 25,000 people per month meet these criteria, the Health Service Journal reports.
Although the NHS aims to treat people within 18 weeks (4.5 months), the average wait is just under 23 weeks.
If the policy changes it could be a big financial boost for private health companies.
A hip replacement, for example, costs upwards of £10,000 per patient, according to BMI Healthcare.
The Indpendent Healthcare Providers Network, an organisation which represents private hospitals, confirmed it has enough space to take on NHS patients.
But patients would still be able to continue waiting for the NHS if they'd rather – the new rule would simply be there to make sure they have options.
They could choose to be referred to a different NHS hospital or continue waiting.
The Royal College of Surgeons has warned the NHS must clear a backlog of patients waiting for surgery.
Nearly a quarter of a million NHS patients – 227,569 people – have been waiting more than six months for treatment, figures show.
And there are 4.16million people in England waiting for treatment – a number second only to 4.18m in October last year.
A total of 36,857 people on the waiting list have been on it for nine months or more, although the number waiting for more than a year is falling over time.
'The backlog of patients waiting to start treatment continues to grow,' said Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons.
'There are now over 100,000 more patients waiting longer than 18 weeks to start treatment when compared with the same time last year.
'While we support NHS England’s plans to pilot new targets and measurements that could improve care, changing targets will not solve the underlying challenges our health service faces.
'With the worst of winter now hopefully behind us, there is an urgent need for a plan to deal with