NHS reforms pose worrying questions for Britain’s democratic process

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September 6, 2011 by sharonbrennan

At the end of April, amid growing condemnation of NHS reforms, the Government asked for a ‘pause’ in the Health and Social bill to allow it to perform a second consultation. As the third reading of the Health and Social bill starts today it would be fair to assume that a pause in the legislation has translated nto a pause in ground-level implementation. But that hasn’t been the case.

In early July, Lansley announced at the NHS Confederation conference in Manchester, that the ‘pause’ in the Bill was “over. It’s now time to act” – which may explain the speed of reform over the summer.

After last year’s initial consultation process, when doctors said they would struggle to meet the 2013 deadline for all GP surgeries to be part of a local consortium to manage NHS budgets, Lansley declared in December 2010 he would “press ahead immediately with pathfinders of emerging GP consortia”. Ostensibly they would blaze a trail for the proposed reforms and help the Government discover any potential future pitfalls in the plan. However, since the Bill is yet to pass, these consortiums are operating “under existing legislation”. At best this seems undemocratic as, according to Lansley himself, 97% of the population is now covered by these consortia without any legislative change to account for this rapid transition.

This leaves the NHS reforms in a muddle as, in a speech at University College London Hospital in June, David Cameron scrapped the 2013 deadline for GPs to take on full commissioning responsibility. With PCTs already offloading staff (Freedom of information requests from 54 PCTs show that at least 2010 jobs have been shed through a combination of redundancies, unfilled posts and mutually agreed resignation) and some consortia further advanced then others, what will fill this authority vacuum?

A recent investigation by trade magazine Pulse found that only 84 PCT-led GP surgeries now exist in England and PCTs are re-tendering existing PCTMS contracts (for which they are directly responsible) under the belief that any such contracts still in existence by April 2013 will not be legal as PCTs will not exist. Of the four types of alternative contracts the PCTs could choose, 41 of these 84 practices have had, or are in the process of having, their contracts retendered under Alternative Provider Medical Services (APMS), which has been specifically designed to broaden the range of providers that GPs can commission from. In short it allows private companies to bid for GP contracts. Unison has said of APMS contracts: “Worryingly, APMS contracts allow for increased privatisation of primary care services and a profit-driven approach to health care provision”.

Just as worryingly, some PCTs want to put out to tender entire care pathways, opening up its patient care provision to private companies. According to Pulse: “NHS East of England plans to auction off £300m of services to GPs, private companies or a combination of the two, in pathways including respiratory and musculoskeletal medicine.” A further eight PCTs are expected to follow suit.

Yet the health bill’s most contentious aspect has been the desire to open up the NHS to “any willing provider”. Following strong criticism, the wording in the Bill is likely to be changed to “any qualified provider” meaning that all providers would have to meet a set of standards – yet as these are yet to be agreed upon, it seems the offloading of entire care pathways is moving faster than the legislation that allows it to.

Finally, the Department of Health has announced that Hinchingbrooke NHS hospital in Cambridgeshire has been given the go ahead to be run by a private company, called Circle Health, as long as the Treasury approves it’s “viability” . This contract has been given an initial green light despite the fact that the company in its recent flotation document warned that a profit might “become unachievable”. Having watched the disastrous collapse of care homes operator Southern Cross, putting many patients at risk of becoming homeless, it seems extraordinary that the Government is considering allowing a company to take over a hospital when it has openly announced it may struggle to make and maintain a profit. This will call into question the long-term survival of Hinchingbrooke or the need for a Government bail-out should Circle Health fail to keep its investors happy.

When they return to debate the Health and Social Bill this week, I think many MPs will be shocked at the pace and extent of ground-level reforms. It seems almost inevitable now that GPs will take on some form of commissioning as PCTs have all but dismantled themselves, even though the Bill allowing this to happen has yet to be signed off. Meanwhile private companies are already sniffing out profits by taking on GP contracts, care pathways and even whole NHS hospitals. It poses worrying questions for Britain’s democratic process when the sitting Government pushes ahead with reforms while intense debate in the Commons has by no means reached its conclusion.

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