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Former health minister’s intervention prompts SBS deal delay

Exclusive A host of PCTs have postponed deals to outsource back-office functions involving patient records to a joint venture between the Department of Health and private health firm, after a former health minister raised the alarm over the contracts.

Today, 10 PCTs across south west England announced that the transfer of ‘family health services' – including patient registrations, screening and transfer of records - to NHS Shared Business Services, a 50/50 joint venture between the DH and private firm Steria, will be pushed back a month until January 2012.

The move is a bid to buy time to address a series of ‘contractual issues' regarding the NHS SBS handover, with former health minister Ben Bradshaw and unions raising question marks over the ‘quality and legality' of the deals.

Exeter MP Mr Bradshaw, who has pushed for the PCTs to delay the deal, welcomed the announcement but warned PCTs had to address ‘widespread concerns' about NHS SBS among GPs, pharmacists and unions. With the PCTs now hoping to sign contracts with NHS SBS by 5pm on the 19th December with a view to transferring the services on January 1st 2012, they have allowed less than three weeks for negotiations with staff and unions.

A statement issued on behalf of the 10 PCTs by NHS Devon said:‘We have agreed to defer the service transfer by one month to January 1, 2012. Final contract signing is now expected on December 21.'

‘During the recent consultation, staff and unions raised a number of issues regarding consultation and procurement. The majority of these have been successfully dealt with. Some, however, would benefit from greater discussion, and the additional time will enable these to be considered and dealt with.'

Mr Bradshaw said:‘I am pleased Devon NHS has agreed to delay this decision, as I requested. It now needs to work hard to address the widespread concerns of doctors, chemists, its own staff and others about both the quality of the proposed service and its legality, before rushing ahead with this outsourcing.'

‘It is highly unusual for our health unions to fall out with local NHS management in this way, so a lot of work needs to be done to reassure staff they have been satisfactorily consulted.'

Last week Pulse revealed that a letter to the chief executive of NHS Wiltshire from Peter Coates, commercial director of the DH, said: ‘It is our strong conviction a single shared operation, undertaken in partnership with NHS SBS, is the most realistic, cost-effective way forward for the NHS.'

Figures obtained by Mr Bradshaw showed a sharp drop in performance in transferring patient records in areas where NHS SBS had taken over back-office functions.

At the time NHS SBS said Mr Bradshaw's figures were ‘inconclusive and misleading'. Spokesperson Monica Owen said: ‘NHS SBS is responsible for one part of the process of transferring records. There are many touch points involving GPs, practice managers, courier services and mailrooms.'

The Department of Health was approached for comment on this story, but a spokesperson was not available.

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