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‘Big opportunities’ for private sector in health bill, says minister

The health bill will create ‘genuine opportunities' for the private sector to take over large chunks of the NHS, the health minister in charge of steering the reform bill through the House of Lords claimed today.

Former banker Lord Howe told an audience of private sector providers that though the NHS ‘will not give up their patients easily', there were opportunities for those wishing to ‘enter the fray'.

The parliamentary under-secretary of state for health was speaking as MPs prepared for a vote on the Health and Social Care Bill that would send it to the House of Lords where he will take charge of its progress.

Speaking at the Laing and Buisson Independent Healthcare Forum today, he said: ‘The opening up of the NHS creates genuine opportunities for those of you who can offer high quality, convenient services that compete favourably with current NHS care. If you can do that then you can do well.'

‘But you know that won't be easy, the NHS isn't a place to earn a fast buck and as I said there are some outstanding performers in the NHS and they will not give up their patients easily, but I know that those who are serious about entering the fray are also determined to rise to the challenge, to deliver excellent care, to stand on your own merits against the best the public sector has to offer to bring new levels of choice and quality to patients.'

In response to a question from Pulse, Lord Howe said that he saw those opportunities for the private sector extending from the provider side to the commissioning side in providing support for GPs working in clinical commissioning groups.

He said: ‘Commissioning support is an absolutely critical area for CCGs some of it will come form the PCT staff who will migrate over to the groups but there will need to be all sorts of support at various levels.'

‘You may well find joint commissioning between CCGs in different kinds of support services and there is a lot of work going on in the department to gauge the optimum size of a population in relation to a particular support service and that will be passed down to the pathfinders.'

‘There will be big opportunities for the private sector here and it must be done on merit and the quality of the support provided,' Lord Howe said.

He suggested that mental health was an example of specialist commissioning that could be taken on by the private sector.

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey responded to Lord Howe's comments by telling Pulse: ‘Earl Howe is correct, which is why so many patients and professionals have worries about the implications of the health bill.'

‘He is also correct that the NHS is not a place to earn a fast buck, however this means large firms will be far more likely to try to cherry pick the easier more profitable work, leading to a two tier service, with younger and relatively well patients getting access to one service whilst the elderly and more vulnerable potentially getting a second class service.  This is not what the public want to see happen in the NHS.'