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Care UK buys largest GP out-of-hours provider

Private healthcare provider Care UK has bought the UK’s largest GP out-of-hours provider, Harmoni, forming an organisation providing unscheduled care to over 15m patients.

Harmoni has been the most successful out-of-hours provider so far in winning the Government’s NHS 111 contracts and in some areas won the contracts over Care UK who bid for several contracts in partnership with Capita.

The news comes after the revelation last month that Department of Health director of improvement and efficiency Jim Easton is to join Care UK as managing director.

Care UK chief executive Mike Parish said, ‘We understand the urgency with which the NHS needs to be able to reduce unscheduled and inappropriate hospital admissions of patients who can and should receive treatment elsewhere.

‘Bringing Harmoni into Care UK’s healthcare organisation will help us to help commissioners within the NHS make the most effective use of their resources, making sure that unscheduled treatment, including out of hours needs, takes place in the most appropriate setting.

‘Harmoni is busy mobilising its new NHS 111 call services, which enable patients to use a single, simple contact point to access unscheduled care and which will allow us as a partner within the NHS to direct those patients to the right local service, which is often not an acute service.’

Harmoni’s managing director Edmund Jahn said : ‘Becoming part of the Care UK family is hugely positive news for our patients, our commissioners and the colleagues who deliver high quality care across all our services. It gives all our services a strong and sustainable platform for the future as we work within Care UK to support the NHS.’

NHS 111 contracts won by Harmoni include all but two of the seven primary care trust clusters in the South West. In Kent, Surrey and Sussex, Harmoni will deliver the service in partnership with South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust.

Harmoni started out as a GP co-operative in Harrow in 1996. Care UK runs over 50 primary care service – including GP and walk-in services, out-of-hours and diagnostics centres – and six hospitals that carry out elective NHS work.

Dr Michael Dixon, interim president of NHS Clinical Commissioners, said the announcement was a ‘wake-up call’ to CCGs that private companies would increasingly be vying to take over primary care services.

He said: ‘I think this announcement gives us an interesting taste of things to come and what small providers of both out-of-hours and in-hours services could become. 

‘Commissioners have to make sure that they wear the trousers. This is a wake up call as private providers increasingly provide GP services commissioners will need to watch very closely as to whether they are good quality and cost-effective. 

‘They will also need to keep track and make sure that they are not loss leading and therefore putting others as a disadvantage.’

‘There should be a level playing field for everyone so that nothing is guaranteeed, it would be a pity if big companies took over and had a monopoly of provision.’

Dr David Jenner, a GP in Cullompton, Devon and NHS Alliance lead on GMS and PMS, said large companies, such as Care UK, would be able to drive out competition from smaller providers.

He said: ‘Life will be more difficult for GP co-operatives in out-of-hours if this merger means that Harmoni will be able to bid for and run contracts as a loss leader or to use their resources to make favourable bids.

‘In 2003, I predicted that in five years time there would be five or six private providers bidding for GP work in the UK and I think I was a bit premature then, but perhaps if we give it another five more years’.

Story updated 16:51