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Conflict of interest fears lead Virgin to take over GP partnerships 



Virgin Care is to end its joint venture partnerships with over 300 GPs and focus on providing services directly, to allay fears that the establishment of CCGs could lead to conflicts of interest.

The move means that the company will assume sole control of its 25 joint venture provider groups with GPs, known as GPCos, which the company said would remove GPs from ‘potential conflicts of interest’.

The 50/50 provider companies, established under Virgin’s former guise of Assura Medical, operate dozens of contracts to provide primary and community care services across the country, including Darzi centres, GP practices, dermatology, and diagnostics, often employing salaried staff.

But fears have been mounting over the possible conflicts of interest for GPs involved since the Government’s white paper first set the new commissioning responsibilities for GPs. A joint investigation by Pulse and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism last year revealed that at least half the board members of some shadow CCGs had links with the company.

Virgin has recently been focussing its energies on bidding to run services directly, and has won a series of larger contracts to provide community services in areas such as Devon, Surrey and Milton Keynes. 

As a result of the move, Virgin will take full control of services run by GPCos once the 329 GPs in the joint partnerships relinquish their stake in the provider companies.

The company said it had would continue to provide services at its primary care centres, and would seek to renegotiate when contracts expire.

It said the move to a ‘single governance structure’ for the bulk of its services would ensure ‘more consistency of governance and leadership, and efficient use of management resource’.

A spokesperson for Virgin Care said: ‘Even though we have robust policies and procedures in place which are endorsed by the Department of Health, many of our GPs have become increasingly worried about the perception of potential conflicts of interest. Moving away from our partnership model removes this concern.’

The spokesperson added: ‘As the business has grown rapidly in the last two years, we now find that far fewer of our patient contacts are seen in services run by our GPCos. With many more new service contracts set to start, this proportion will reduce significantly in the near future.’

‘We have been in discussions about the best way forward with the GP Board members for quite some time now. The first GPs to agree the move to direct provision left their GPCos over 18 months ago and most others have followed suit since then.’

Dr Ian MacDonald, former chair of the Assura Coventry GPCo, said: ‘We’ve worked in partnership with Virgin Care for several years now and we are proud of the services they have helped us deliver.

‘However, we fully accept that the world has changed since we began working with Virgin Care, particularly in light of recent developments such as the Health and Social Care Act, and as GPs we want to ensure that there is a clear division between provision and commissioning.

‘Despite no conflict ever having arisen, we want to avoid any perception that a conflict exists by leaving the partnership prior to GPs taking control of commissioning in April 2013.’