By Gareth Iacobucci
Private companies running Darzi centres and APMS practices should be granted access to NHS pensions for their staff, according to the NHS Confederation's Partners Network.
A report from the group, which represents the independent sector within the confederation, said current arrangements that preclude GPs working for private companies from accessing NHS pensions have created an uneven playing field for private firms, and may force them to retreat from the NHS.
It comes after Pulse recently revealed that private companies have been lobbying ministers to allow them to offer NHS pensions to GPs at Darzi centres and APMS practices, with Assura Medical, now owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin, among the firms pushing the Government to change the rules.
The issue has sparked controversy since it was first mooted, as it would offer GPs greater incentives to work at private firms, and remove one of the key differentiating features between NHS and private services.
But the report, Harnessing the benefits of the independent sector: priorities for the next government claimed private firms currently operate with a cost disadvantage of around 14% compared to public sector providers in the NHS, and said half of this is down to the current ‘pensions imbalance'.
It called on the next Government to abolish the current rules, and to level the playing field by ensuring that public sector bids to run services were fully costed to include NHS pensions, in order to determine ‘their full cost to the taxpayer'.
The network said this could be achieved either by ‘increasing the percentage of their pension costs which they have to bear directly', or by applying a ‘shadow' weighting factor which ‘forces commissioners into making a truer comparison when assessing bids.'
It added: ‘Unless this aspect of the playing field is levelled it is likely that over time the pitch will become unplayable for the independent sector.'
The report also calls on the next Government to banish any concept of the NHS being the ‘preferred provider' to create a level playing field for all providers, and recommends moving away from NHS Choices as a single source of information by opening the market to ‘multiple information providers'.
Dr Andrew Dearden, chair of the BMA pensions committee, said the BMA was open to discussions on the pensions issue - but warned any future changes should not be ‘advantageous' to the private sector.
He said: ‘We're going to have to make sure that we don't disadvantage doctors but we also have to make sure that we don't advantageously affect private companies. That would then create increased cost for everybody else in the NHS. It has got to be fair or we don't do it.'Private companies running Darzi centres and APMS practices should be granted access to NHS pensions, the report argues Private companies running Darzi centres and APMS practices should be granted access to NHS pensions, the report argues