NHS Forum 'listening' report unlikely to assuage health service fears

By staff writers
June 13, 2011

The NHS Future Forum is due to submit its report on proposed health reforms today (Monday 13 June). It will recommend some changes to government plans, but is expected largely to fall in with Prime Minister David Cameron's wishes for more competition and private involvement.

Concerns about NHS privatisation are likely to remain strong, however, after a joint investigation by Pulse and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that at least half the board members of some GP consortia have links with a single, large private healthcare company.

The official NHS Future Forum review of the health service in England has been led by former Royal College of GPs chief Professor Steve Field, has carried out more than 200 consultation events with doctors, nurses and patients.

The exercise, billed by government as 'independent', has been running for two months, after Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's proposals ran into a political firestorm.

But critics are suspicious that the Forum is reporting only a week after the end of the government commissioned "listening" exercise, and that its findings were already heavily shaped by the agenda set out by the Coalition.

Dr Laurence Buckman, chair of the General Practitioner Committee, told GP magazine on 10 June: "We are not so much fascinated by what the NHS Future Forum says, it's what the government's response will be [that interests us]... Why do governments always run to enthusiasts and advisers with a vested interest first? We [doctors] have been telling this government what we think - and we will know [soon] whether they have been listening to us."

The government has said it will reply "in detail" on Tuesday 14 June, despite having received the report only hours earlier, and Mr Cameron's advisers believe that, despite some changes to their reforms, the overall package can be kept "on track" - despite huge professional and public opposition.

Deep fears have been raised about "creeping privatisation" and the risks of overhauling an NHS system already under massive financial pressure - despite assurances from the PM last week that the NHS is safe in his hands.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is expected to claim on 13 June that the Liberal Democrats have got their way in coalition government battles over the health bill. But patient, community and trade union groups remain singularly unconvinced.

Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health managers, told the BBC at the weekend: "The government must now give the NHS some clarity and enable it to focus on the major problems it faces such as financial pressure and the variability of care.

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Healey told the BBC Politics Show: "My fear is that we'll hear the Prime Minister claim these are substantial and significant changes, but the long-term ideological plan to turn the NHS into a market, to open up all parts of the NHS to private companies, will remain."

Nearly half a million people have so far signed the 38 Degrees 'Protect Our NHS' petition (http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/Protect_our_NHS_Petition).

Meanwhile, at least half the board members of some GP consortia have links with a single private healthcare company, a joint investigation by Pulse and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed.

Medical, majority controlled by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has links with 50 per cent or more of the board members at three of the 52 first-wave GP pathfinders.

The Department of Health has responded to the investigation by saying it is planning new guidance on the make-up of consortia and how to deal with potential conflicts of interest following the NHS Forum report.

But findings by the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University, London, show that one in seven board members of first-wave consortia has a link to a private company, defined as an association registered by PCTs, a financial link recorded in Companies House records, employment by a company or employment by a GP practice in partnership with a company.

This compares with an earlier Pulse investigation finding one in 10 consortium board members were directors of private providers. More than 60 per cent of those with private links were associated with Assura. Most were GP members of Assura, meaning their practice had formed a joint company with it.

These companies provide community-based services in areas such as dermatology, sexual health and out-of-hours care, with profits split 50:50 between Assura and member practices.

At the Sutton Consortium in Surrey, 15 out of 25 board members are linked to Assura Medical. In the South Reading Consortium, three out of six board members are GP members of Assura, and two are employees of an Assura member practice.

At the Calleva Consortium in Basingstoke, Hampshire, five out of 10 voting members on the consortium board have links with Assura, as does the non-voting board secretary.

"The idea that privatisation is not on the government and corportaion's agenda is simply untrue, and is made plain by the Pulse findings," a commentator told Ekklesia.

* Protect Our NHS petition: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/Protect_our_NHS_Petition


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