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An NHS good news story

NHS mergers have had a bad rap in recent years. NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens memorably castigated them as “flawed, so-called ‘acquisition processes’ that drag on for years, cost oodles in management consultancy spend and deliver slightly less than diddly squat”.

It therefore came as a bit of a surprise on Tuesday when the Care Quality Commission declared the “remarkable” transformation of Wexham Park Hospital as the “most impressive” example of improvement it had seen – the hospital was taken over when Frimley Health acquired Heatherwood and Wexham Park in October 2014.

Since the acquisition, the hospital’s rating has soared from “inadequate” to “good”.

Cynics will point out that Frimley Health received more than £300m to smooth the takeover, but the improvement is still striking.

Speaking exclusively to HSJ, Sir Andrew Morris, the FT’s chief executive, said “clinical leadership” was the reason why the takeover had succeeded where other transactions had failed.

So will we see a new wave of NHS mergers?

Sir Andrew said that the health service should do trust takeovers on a “bigger scale” where the conditions were right because there were still “too many organisations on the provider and commissioning side” (a view affirmed by other high profile trust chief executives, such as University College London Hospital’s Sir Robert Naylor).

However, Sir Andrew has no immediate plans for further empire building – he said Frimley Health was “not at the moment” looking at the idea of setting up a more extensive “hospital chain”, as recommended by the Dalton review.

The issue more likely to be taking up his time is sorting out the underlying deficit of £30m at Heatherwood and Wexham Park.

Grim up north

Sunderland CCG is urgently searching for providers to take on three “emergency” GP surgery contracts from March, with the provision of primary care services for over 13,000 patients in an uncertain state.

The CCG placed the three services out to tender last year but failed to first ensure the services would be provided in the six months to October, when the new contract is set to start.

While this won’t be welcomed by patients, it doesn’t look great for the CCG either, given that this is its first major commissioning decision related to general practice since taking on delegated commissioning responsibilities last April.

Managers at all the practices told HSJ that prior to being informed about the merged procurement, Sunderland CCG last summer asked them to renew their contracts until September 2016.

While they were told their contracts were to be tendered, the practices were not at that stage told the contracts would be merged and taken on by one provider.

The providers agreed in principle to extend their contracts, but once they discovered the commissioners’ plans to tender a merged service they all refused to extend.

Ashley Liston, a partner at one of the three, said he was concerned about how the new model would change care locally, the effect on staff and patients’ fears about the impact on the quality of services.