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Co-ops to transform as minister admits service 'concerns'

By Nerys Hairon

Health minister John Hutton has admitted there are 'genuine concerns' that out-of-hours services will deteriorate when GPs give up their 24-hour responsibility.

His concession came at the launch of a Government-backed plan to change the

legal status of GP out-of-hours co-operatives.

The plan, drawn up by the National Association of GP Co-operatives (NAGPC) and management consultant Mutuo, said changes to co-ops' constitutions were needed to prevent them folding when many GPs stopped doing shifts.

The end of co-ops would create 'large gaps' and have a 'knock-on detrimental effect on in-hours services, with frustrated patients presenting at GP practices', the document, Care on Call, warned.

A number of co-ops have already closed because they could not guarantee cover when GPs stopped doing shifts.

Three GPs in five told a recent Pulse survey they had concerns about patient safety and quality of care when PCOs took over out-of-hours responsibility.

Mr Hutton said at the launch: 'There are genuine concerns about what is happening. Will patients notice a deterioration in services? Will we continue to provide high-quality care? The answer to the latter is yes.'

The plan means co-ops will become 'not-for-profit mutual trading societies' which can integrate with other emergency care providers, including the ambulance service, A&E and NHS Direct.

NAGPC chair Dr Mark Reynolds said patients had been scared by reports of how GPs were going to 'opt out' of out-of-hours. 'As a public perception of how people hear about out-of-hours it's unfortunate. It's a transfer of responsibility.'

Some GP co-ops gave the model a cautious welcome, but others said it had come too late to save them.

Dr Tim Ladbrooke, medical director of Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster co-op, said it would make a decision in March 2005.

But Dr Jim Edwards of Dorset Doctors on Call said his co-op had folded. 'GPs just reached the stage where they could not wait to get out.'

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