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BMA opts for outright opposition to health bill after knife-edge vote

The BMA is to launch a public campaign to oppose the Government's NHS reforms after council members narrowly passed a motion to oppose the health bill in its entirety.

The vote for outright opposition marks a significant change of heart from BMA leaders, who until now have stopped short of opposing the bill and have instead campaigned for the ‘withdrawal' of the legislation while negotiating with Government to amend the reforms.

It comes after council members claimed that a leaked DH document  - Developing commissioning support towards service excellence - was a ‘smoking gun' confirming fears that ministers hope to privatise the NHS ‘by stealth'. The BMA has requested an urgent meeting with health secretary Andrew Lansley to discuss the document, which it claimed is likely to mean support services for clinical commissioning groups will only be provided by large commercial organisations after 2016.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, chair of the BMA, said: ‘A key plank of the Government's NHS reforms was to entrust GPs and other healthcare professionals to lead on the commissioning of services for patients to ensure local health needs were met.'

‘These latest proposals from the Government have the potential to seriously undermine this role, restricting the freedom and independence that clinically-led commissioning groups need to make locally sensitive, locally accountable, patient-focused decisions.'

BMA Council member Dr Helena McKeown, a GP in Salisbury, told Pulse: ‘Eighteen months ago those of us who spoke of privatisation by stealth were called paranoid and accused of scaremongering. We now have a piece of DH evidence leaked and widely available on the net showing how the large corporate commissioners would be embedded in commissioning. It is fair to say this is the smoking gun.'

The move by the BMA to oppose all of the health bill represents a significant departure from its previous stance of ‘critical engagement' championed by Dr Meldrum. At the BMA's Special Representative Meeting in March, Dr Meldrum faced down calls to abandon the stance, calling on members not to ‘tie the hands' of negotiators.

In September Pulse revealed that Dr Meldrum challenged BMA Council to ‘back me or sack me' after being formally censured by his colleagues across London for his failure to promote members' views and campaign for the withdrawal of the health bill. Following the vote of confidence, the BMA Council ‘expressed its full support' for Dr Meldrum's leadership.

Pulse understands yesterday's vote for outright opposition was passed only narrowly, with council members still largely divided over how best to influence Government policy.

The motion committed the BMA to the ‘rapid organisation of a public campaign of opposition' to the health bill. The nature and extent of the campaign has yet to be decided, although GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman ruled out asking GPs to withdraw from CCGs.

‘Clinical commissioning is happening now and should continue,' Dr Buckman said. ‘We will continue to encourage GPs to be involved. ‘

A DH spokesperson said: ‘The BMA has misunderstood our plans for commissioning support. All commissioning decisions, including on the back-office functions of commissioning support, will be made by clinical commissioning groups themselves and cannot be delegated to other organisations.'

‘It would be a real shame if the BMA's new position means they feel unable to work with Government on making the bill a success - for the benefit of patients, and indeed their members.'