NHS services opened up to competition


In the mist of the News of the World Select Committee hearing yesterday, the health secretary announced that the government will open up more than £1bn of NHS services to competition from private companies and charities. This announcement has led to increased fears that the health service will ultimately become privatised.

In the first wave which will begin in April 2012, eight NHS areas including: musculoskeletal services for back pain, adult hearing services in the community, wheelchair services for children, and primary care psychological therapies for adults, will be open for “competition on quality not price”. If successful, the “any qualified provider” policy would from 2013 see non-NHS bodies allowed to deliver more complicated clinical services in maternity and “home chemotherapy”.

Andrew Lansley, who has now admitted that the government’s initial plans for competition in the NHS were too ambitious, has slowed down the rollout of competition. The health secretary said his plans would now “enable patients to choose [providers] … where this will lead to better care”.

Labour questioned the policy, which the shadow health secretary, John Healey, said was “not about giving more control to patients, but setting up a full-scale market”.

His colleague Emily Thornberry, the party’s health spokeswoman, added that “today is a good day to announce the policy because everyone is preoccupied with telephone hacking. [They] hope no one will notice it.” This theme was again picked up on Twitter with a stream of comments about it “being a good day to bury bad news”.

The trade union Unison said: “Patients will be little more than consumers, as the NHS becomes a market-driven service, with profits first and patients second. And they could be left without the services they need as forward planning in the NHS becomes impossible.”

A spokesman for the British Medical Association questioned “the assumption that increasing competition will always mean improving choice. The ultimate consequence of market failure in the NHS is the closure of services, restricting the choice of patients who would have wished to use them.”

The Department of Health dismissed these charges and argued the policy would benefit patients by bringing many services out of hospitals, which would make it easier to access healthcare.

So, what are the proposed care options for patients?

Well, from April 2012 patients receiving one of eight types of community and mental health services in England will be able to be choose to access their care or support from a private health provider or voluntary or charitable organisation, not just the NHS. These eight types of community and mental health services are:

• Services for back and neck pain.
• Adult hearing services in the community.
• Continence services (adults and children).
Diagnostic tests closer to home.
• Wheelchair services (children).
• Podiatry (feet) services.
• Leg ulcer and wound healing.
• Talking Therapies (primary care psychological therapies, adults).

Together these services represent about £1bn of the NHS’s £110bn a year activity.