It’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream

Posted on October 7, 2009. Filed under: GP-led health centres, News stories, Polyclinics | Tags: |

Pulse | Editorial | 7 October 2009

Politics, polyclinics and private companies – it’s the perfect recipe for paranoia. But as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

It turns out that all those suspicions that the Government was deliberately grooming the private sector for a key role in the polyclinic project, and intentionally tilting the playing field away from GPs, were entirely justified.

As Pulse reveals this week, NHS managers in London were holding secret, six-weekly meetings throughout the run-up to the polyclinic tendering process with a panel of 10 private companies, at just the same time that GP leaders were finding it almost impossible to gain an ear for their concerns.

Extraordinarily, in a modern political world that claims to be embracing transparency, no minutes were ever taken, even when former minister Lord Darzi joined the discussions.

The very existence of the meetings was only revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, and even then only after a nine-month appeal process, and once Lord Darzi had safely departed from his ministerial post.

But although the discussions were shrouded in secrecy, the briefing notes eventually released to Pulse are commendably open about their purpose.

‘It is a forum for the market to offer opinions and advice in the run-up to tendering and procurement of primary care services,’ they say, adding that the NHS was aware of a need to bolster the City’s confidence that ‘ventures’ in primary care would be rewarding.

It’s impossible to say whether those meetings made any difference to the tendering process in London, or elsewhere in the UK.

Nationally, around a quarter of Lord Darzi’s GP-led health centres have been awarded to private firms, while in London, where large federated polyclinics could in theory be even more attractive to the private sector, too few contract winners have been announced to establish the true picture.

But what can be said with certainty is that to allow private companies such extensive access during the period immediately before Lord Darzi’s plans were implemented across the country was astonishingly inappropriate. To hold those meetings in private, away from the prying eyes of doctors or patients, makes a mockery of the pledge to consult openly on the tendering process and remain accountable to the public. Never again will conspiracy theories about the privatisation of general practice be dismissed as the product of GP leaders’ fevered imaginations.

What GPs will be hoping is that this disturbing period in the development of primary care policy is now closed, with the departure of the man who was its main architect.

There are positive signs, with current health secretary Andy Burnham at last getting tough on independent sector treatment centres, and acknowledging that NHS providers need a fair chance to compete for contracts.

Let’s hope that if he decides to embark on a series of meetings with private providers, he at least has the good grace to be open about it.

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