The giant American private healthcare firm Humana plans to pull out of the NHS commissioning support market and wind down its UK business within six months, HSJ has learned.

The news comes on the eve of the publication of Andrew Lansley’s health bill, which some fear will see the private sector take over large parts of NHS commissioning on behalf of GP consortia.

The market [for private sector commissioning support] is unlikely to develop dramatically in the next year or so

But Humana Europe’s marketing and communications director Lee Phillips said the firm saw little prospect of any significant opportunities in the immediate future.

He told HSJ: “The DH has made it clear that the priority at the moment is sorting out the NHS staff from the PCTs and the SHAs, and that the market [for private sector commissioning support] is unlikely to develop dramatically in the next year or so.”

Mr Phillips said Humana’s UK arm, which employs about 70 people, was not taking on any new work, and was in talks with “interested parties” about selling off all or part of its business. The firm anticipated it would have completed or transferred all of its outstanding contracts within three to six months.

If the firm had not found buyers for any part of its UK business by the time its existing contracts were completed, then all UK staff could be made redundant, he confirmed.

Humana set up shop in the UK in 2006, to take part in the controversial framework for procuring external support for commissioners (FESC), a DH contract that was intended to give primary care trusts easy access to expert support from the private sector.

But the FESC process was slow and complex, and few PCTs ended up buying support through the framework, said Mr Phillips.

“We had been led to believe that there were at least half of all PCTs interested in using the framework, and in the end I can’t recall more than 10 or 15 notices being issued,” he said. “Some of those never got off the ground.”

He added that Humana’s decision to pull out of the UK market was for strategic, rather than economic reasons: “The UK business is becoming increasingly an outlier to the core Humana business.”

He said the US parent company was focusing more on supplementary health insurance products, and had just acquired a large primary care network in Texas. Internationally, it wanted to focus on developing markets such as China.

Humana won two contracts through the FESC, one with Barnsley PCT and the other with East of England SHA.

US health giant Humana to pull out of UK