LONDON — Patients facing long delays for treatment under Britain's ailing health-care system welcomed a proposal that may allow them to go to European hospitals — with Britain footing the bill.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn said Monday that Britain accepted a European Court of Justice ruling that patients facing "undue delay" in their home countries should be allowed to seek treatment in other European Union nations.

"It is my intention to make clear to health authorities and primary care trusts that they are able to commission services from other European countries as part of their wider efforts to reduce waiting times," Milburn said.

Milburn warned that the change may require legislation to put in place "robust systems to guarantee patients high standards of care and taxpayers good value for money." Milburn also said that no patients will be sent abroad "against their wishes."

Britain's socialized National Health Service, or NHS, has faced years of criticism over what is widely seen as an eroding standard of care. Patients routinely complain of long delays, sometimes waiting more than a year for surgery, shortages of hospital beds and a lack of specialist doctors and nurses.

During his re-election campaign, prime minister Tony Blair promised to make improving the NHS, founded in 1948, a priority. He pledged to significantly increase spending, cut waiting lists and waiting times for surgery and hire more specialist surgeons, general practitioners and nurses.

Mike Stone of the Patients Association said such a change in policy could benefit thousands of people waiting for treatment. But he called on officials to move quickly. "What worries us is that Milburn says this new approach will not happen quickly because we require legislation, time to put it in place and so on," Stone said. "Let's face it, as we know there are thousands and thousands of patients in this country, people who need orthopedic treatment like hip and knee operations, who are in daily pain."

Steven Thornton, chief executive of the NHS confederation, however, urged a more cautious approach. He said the new policy — offering to send some patients abroad for treatment — could remove some of the pressure on the health care system, but the plan should be carefully considered first.

"A lot of work would have to go into planning it properly," he said.

"My greatest worry in all of this is the impact on what we might call health inequalities. It is a very attractive proposition maybe to affluent middle class people ... but to poorer, elderly people who maybe have never been abroad in their lives this is very daunting."