Exclusive The GPC may take legal action to end the lengthy dispute over ‘unreasonable’ premises fee hikes, Pulse has learned.
The GPC has written to practices with a questionnaire to understand ‘the breadth of issues’, with the letter adding that it ‘must now look at all… options available to us in order to bring this issue to a head’.
It said this comes as ‘widespread unilateral changes’ to rent and service charges mean costs have ‘escalated exponentially’ and this risks destabilising already struggling practices.
Asked whether the options on the table included legal action, GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said this was not ruled out.
He said: ‘All options means just that, we are considering all options available to resolve this issue.
‘We are doing all we can, working closely with our legal advisors to get a solution.’
The latest GPC measures follow years of wrangling over a standardised contract for GPs in rented premises that NHS England has targeted since its inception in 2013.
As Pulse has revealed, it has led to NHS Property Services (NHSPS) drawing up new contracts that could increase costs to some practices by up to £60,000 a year.
NHS England has tried to incentivise practices to agree to the new terms by November this year, with promises to cover legal fees and stamp duty land tax and temporary reimbursements.
But there has been little clarity for practices about why their charges are changing and what parts will continue to be reimbursable in the longer term.
Pulse has also seen NHS England regional teams threatening to withhold long-awaited premises funding from practices which have not signed up to the standardised contract.
The GPC’s letter to practices, signed by GPC practice finance lead Dr Ian Hume, said NHS England has not met a deadline set out to it of 2 May put forward a national solution to the problem which ‘doesn’t expose practices to unreasonable and uncapped charges’.
It added: ‘As it stands, we have not received a proposal from NHSPS to address our collective concerns. They are instead reiterating a belief that their arrangements can be changed unilaterally in order to satisfy decisions that have been taken internally.’
‘With the above in mind, and whilst we will still push for a sensible negotiated position to be reached, we must now look at all other options available to us in order to bring this issue to a head.’
NHSPS said the proposed contract changes were based on ‘nationally agreed’ NHS funding arrangements and its charges were comparable to other practice landlords.
NHS Property Services said it was ‘keen to continue discussions’ with the BMA when asked to respond to the missed ultimatum.
A spokesperson told Pulse: ‘Property costs are applied in line with nationally agreed NHS funding arrangements and we are confident our charges are comparable with other practice landlords.
‘We are in discussions with the BMA and NHS England to try and help resolve some of these issues and we are keen to continue those discussions.’
At the LMCs Conference in Edinburgh last week, the GPC announced it was ‘hopeful’ the issue could be resolved in GPs’ favour, and expected it to ‘come to a head in the next month’.
Fighting premises service fee hikes
NHS England wants all practices throughout the country which rent their premises from NHSPS to be on one standardised lease.
Some 14% of NHS practices are managed by NHSPS and many of these have operated with a variety of historical payment and charging arrangements, and often without a formal written lease.
But as the new terms have materialised, LMCs have been inundated with questions from practices unclear about why the service charges being claimed have jumped as much as 400% – often when the property hasn’t seen investment for years.
The GPC has warned each practice to take legal advice before it signs any new lease, or the Heads of Terms documents that have been sent out by NHS England and NHS Property Services – even when these purport to be based on a template lease signed off by GPC last year.