American private health insurance giant UnitedHealth is pulling out of the UK market for primary care provision, saying it wants to focus on its commissioning support business.

The decision will further concentrate the private market for primary care services, and follows suggestions that the current “pause” in the passage of the health bill has unsettled some private sector providers of NHS services.

Ownership of UnitedHealth Primary Care, a subsidiary of its UK business, which runs six GP practices across England, will be transferred to The Practice Plc, a GP-led company which already operates around 50 surgeries with “immediate effect”.

The deal will see more than a third of UnitedHealth UK’s workforce transferred to the new employer. The company employs over 200 UK staff, of whom around 70 will transfer with UHPC to The Practice.

UnitedHeath UK chief executive Katherine Ward said the firm would not in the future be competing to provide primary care services. “We’ve always said that we want to be a long term player in the NHS. That hasn’t changed.

“But we’ve taken the decision to focus our efforts on providing commissioning support services that can help the NHS meet the £20bn QIPP [efficiency savings] challenge.”

The market is already small for privately-provided primary care. In 2010 just 2.2 per cent NHS GP practices were administered by private limited companies, according to the NHS information centre.

Asked if the pullout would make it easier for UHUK to win commissioning support business, external affairs director Tony Sampson told HSJ: “From the GPs’ perspective, we are now being clear that we won’t be competing to deliver primary care services. We’re going to be partners in commissioning support.”

But the decision comes at a time of uncertainty for commissioning support providers.

Humana, a rival US firm, announced earlier this year it would pull out of the UK market, saying it saw few near-future opportunities in the commissioning support market.

Mr Sampson acknowledged there was “a lot of change in the system at the moment”, but added: “What’s inescapable is that the NHS has got to achieve an unprecedented level of efficiency and quality savings, and we think we’ve got a role to play as part of that.”

Of the six UnitedHealth GP surgeries to be transferred to The Practice, three are based in Camden, north London, two are in Leicestershire, and one is in Derby, Mr Sampson added.

Peter Watts, chief executive of The Practice, said that the acquisition would add around 20,000 to the company’s collective NHS patient list, which already stood at 153,000. In the Leicester region it would take The Practice’s patient list to around 26,000, across six sites, he added.

“When you’re running patient lists, scale does matter,” he told HSJ. It would allow the company to do things like bring in specialist nurses, who it would not be practical to employ at a single surgery, to work across several sites, he suggested.