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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Report opens door to private firms

By Ian Quinn

Exclusive: GPs are set to be plunged into a new era of private-sector competition after a Government-commissioned report ruled the health service was operating a closed shop and systematically excluding companies from running services.

The NHS Co-operation and Competition Panel's controversial interim findings follow Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement that private firms and charities would be able to challenge for the right to run all public-sector contracts.

Nigel Edwards, acting chief executive of the NHS Confederation, described the plans as ‘game changing' and suggested GPs could even face competition for their own practice contracts from private companies, although the Department of Health denied this.

The Co-operation and Competition Panel's report, commissioned by Monitor and the DH, said it had found strong evidence of trusts restricting patient choice, reporting a ‘pattern of behaviour' that saw GPs told to use specific NHS services.

‘The evidence suggests there is significant activity which appears inconsistent with the principles and rules,' said director Andrew Taylor.

The NHS Confederation's NHS Partners Network, which includes Circle, UnitedHealth UK, Care UK and Virgin, has been running a concerted campaign against restrictions on use of private firms in the NHS, and claimed the panel's findings would set the benchmark for future regulation of GP commissioning by Monitor.

Last week, David Bennett, interim chief executive of Monitor, said he wanted to see the NHS deregulated just as had occurred in the gas, electricity and railway industries.

David Worskett, director of the NHS Partners Network, hailed the competition panel's report as proof private firms had been unfairly constrained: ‘It started when Mr Burnham tried to introduce the preferred provider policy. Our members want a fair basis on which to compete and the majority of GP commissioners will want to use all the tools at their disposal to secure value for money.'

Mr Worskett claimed a GPC motion, calling for amendments to the health bill to allow GP consortia to choose a list of licensed providers to commission in their area, was ‘almost certainly unlawful'.

‘It would potentially be challenged in the courts,' he said.

Dr Helena McKeown, GPC and BMA council member and a GP in Salisbury, said she was ‘deeply disturbed' by moves to ramp up the role of private providers. ‘What the Prime Minister is saying fills me with dread,' she said.

Dr Helena McKeown: Plabs 'fill me with dread'

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