By Ian Quinn
NHS managers have launched a scathing attack on a Government inquiry into allegations its any willing provider policy is being ignored and that private firms are being squeezed out.
The NHS Confederation’s Primary Care Trust Network describedan inquiry by the Co-operation and Competition panel into the use of the any willing provider policy on routine elective care, commissioned by the Department of Health and Monitor, as overly aggressive and potentially distracting and confusing managers at a time when they are trying to slash management costs and drive efficiency savings.
In its submission to the investigation, the network also claimed there was little evidence to back any of the claims that private providers were being deliberately sidelined by commissioners.
Pulse revealed earlier this month that an interim report by the NHS Co-operation and Competition Panel had accused the health service of operating a closed shop and systematically excluding companies from running services, as the Government plans for a major expansion in the role of private providers.
The Panel is seperately investigating complaints lodged by private provider Circle against two PCTs – NHS Wiltshire and NHS Bath and North Somerset, which it claims froze the company out of the provision of elective surgery procedures.
The controversial interim findings of the Panel, published last month, found what it claimed was strong evidence of trusts restricting patient choice, and what it called a ‘pattern of behavior’ that saw GPs told to use specific NHS services.
However, in a strongly-worded response to the ongoing inquiry, PCT network director David Stout said the way it had been handled so far had caused ‘frustration and confusion’ among managers and launched an attack on a recent email to PCTs asking them to comment on ‘unspecified’ allegations of favouritism towards NHS providers.
He said at a time that PCTs are ‘undergoing major upheaval’ the ‘tone and content’ of the allegations by the competition body had infuriated PCTs for whom ‘responding to unspecified allegations of inappropriate commissioning behaviours has understandably not been seen as a priority for the use of the increasingly limited management resource available in these organisations.’
The response claimed that placing restrictions on choice was ‘sometimes justifiable when this is not against the best interests of patients and tax-payers’, claiming that some PCTs have restricted the number of providers commissioned for ‘quality and safety reasons’.
Mr Stout also defended moves taken by a raft of trusts to slow down hospital activity, including extended waiting times and imposing referral thresholds, which the Panel had said restricted patient choice and competition.
He said the moves were necessary in ‘the context of financial restraint’ and there was no evidence that they were being applied at the expense of private providers.
The inquiry has caused deep division within the NHS Confederation.
Its NHS Partners Network, which includes private firms such as Circle, UnitedHealth UK, Care UK and Virgin, has been running a concerted campaign against restrictions on use of private firms in the NHS.
It has claimed the panel’s findings would set the benchmark for future regulation of GP commissioning by Monitor and its director, David Worskett said the interim report was proof private firms had been unfairly constrained.
David Stout: PCTs ‘frustrated and confused’ by allegations of bias against private firms David Stout: PCTs ‘frustrated and confused’ by allegations of bias against private firms