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Privatisation fear over outsourcing of GP support services



NHS England is opening up a £100 million contract for operating GP support services to a full public procurement, which could see private sector companies taking over the management of cancer screening programs and back office functions.

Attempts to retain primary care support services in-house have failed because it has not been possible to develop a ‘viable solution’ which delivered the required efficiency savings, NHS England has announced.

The announcement follows a closed board meeting where members voted on three options to provide the services, that also include processing medical records and performer and contractor list administration, in a bid to save £40m from its £100m primary care support services budget. This includes cutting a series of services no longer to be centrally funded.

The third option, which would have involved directly awarding services to SSCL – a joint venture between the home office and Steria – and could have seen administrative support outsourced to India, was also rejected.

However GP leaders say that the new competitive tender does not preclude the SSCL winning the contract, and that it seemed likely that any private operator would outsource to cut costs.

Dr Robert Morley, executive secretary of Birmingham LMC and chair of the GPC’s contracts and regulation subcommittee, told Pulse that previous experiences of GP payments being outsourced to Shared Business Services did not bode well for the transfer of PCS services.

Dr Morley told Pulse: ‘The portents are absolutely horrendous for general practice I’m afraid, I don’t want to be a Casandra or a shroud waver, but we’ve been proved right over payments, there’s nothing at all that reassures me this isn’t going to be an absolute bloody disaster.’

He added: ‘Clearly they are giving it out to a competitive commercial procurement, IE a privatisation of these services.’

‘Whether it ends up being awarded to SSCL at the end of the day or gets awarded to [anyone else] it’s going to be an absolute disaster for the patients who need primary care services, not just general practice.’

And Dr Morley also said that losing the institutional knowledge of the current primary care support staff would compound the problem.

‘All the long standing staff who’ve been in place, who at least know something about how primary care works and the NHS works, have either already left or are being organised out of the organisation.’

NHS England’s national director for transformation and corporate operations, Karen Wheeler, praised the support staff but said finding an ‘in-house’ solution had not been possible.

Ms Wheeler said: ‘NHS England is committed to cutting administrative costs for all services, and these changes will benefit patients and the taxpayer by freeing up more money for care.’

‘We have a skilled and committed set of staff delivering these services already and have put considerable effort into designing a viable in-house solution.’

‘Unfortunately, it has not been possible to design a solution which made the required level of efficiencies. We know this is a difficult time for PCS staff and we are committed to ensuring that any transfer process for relevant staff is a smooth as possible.’