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Cash-strapped PCTs pin hopes on shift of services to private firms

By Ian Quinn

Exclusive: PCTs are planning to transfer NHS contracts worth many millions of pounds to the private sector as a quick fix following Government pressure to make sweeping ‘efficiency savings'.

A Pulse investigation has revealed NHS managers are gearing up for a huge shift of services to alternative providers as a means to drive efficiencies. As many as 65% of trusts admitted to plans to further increase use of the private sector.

The shift of care from hospitals into the community is spurring the sudden growth in the role of alternative pro-viders, our analysis of responses to the Freedom of Information Act from 64 PCTs reveals.

Some 60% of trusts have already started to transfer secondary care services to independently run companies based in the community, or have plans to do so, with private diagnostic services, polysystems and Darzi centres all set to benefit from the redistribution of contracts.

Our findings follow recent guidance issued by the Department of Health to PCT managers, which watered down health secretary Andy Burnham's pledge to make the NHS the ‘preferred provider'.

It advised NHS managers to operate a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy before tendering for existing services, but also called for trusts to step up use of private firms for new services to increase competition.

And Conservative shadow health minister Mark Simmonds reveals in an exclusive interview with Pulse this week that his party would scrap even this limited commitment to the NHS as preferred provider, spelling out his support for an ‘any willing provider' policy.

PCTs told Pulse they were actively looking for alternative providers who could come in and run NHS services.

NHS Eastern and Coastal Kent said it was ‘scouting for new providers' despite increasing its spending on the private sector by 22% in 2009/10 alone.

NHS Hounslow has identified a ‘plethora of independent providers' as part of its plans to reduce hospital spend and shift services to a GP polysystem.

NHS Milton Keynes revealed plans to sign new contracts with private provider Ramsay Health Care, which runs an independent sector treatment centre in the area.

Elsewhere, NHS Bristol said it planned to ‘transfer a broad range of care currently provided in secondary care to alternative providers', including end-of-life care services, outpatient elective care and care for people with long-term conditions.

Mr Simmonds told Pulse the Tories were fully supportive of the increasing use of the private sector in the NHS.

He said: ‘I don't buy the argument that private firms are only interested in profits. You've got to have an element of competition, as it drives efficiencies.'

But GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman said the findings of Pulse's investigation vindicated the GPC's stance in its manifesto – launched last week – calling for the commercialisation of the NHS to be halted.

‘It makes it clear there's a difference between where we are and where the Government is,' he said. ‘We don't think there should any more private sector involvement.'

Dr Lucy Marchand, a GP in Milton Keynes, warned her PCT's plans to farm services out to the private sector would fragment care.

She said: ‘When you start tendering stuff out, you don't always know much about the people you're referring to.'

Dr Lucy Marchand