Published: 30/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5962 Page 13
Moves to privatise the management of NHS fast-track surgical treatment centres have been buried in an announcement promising£3bn investment to speed up waiting lists.
One NHS trust with a treatment centre said the decision to contract out its management had been taken without its knowledge or agreement.
Last month, health secretary Patricia Hewitt announced contracts worth more than£3bn over five years to buy nearly 2 million extra operations a year from a second wave of independent treatment centres.
But some of the increased use of the independent sector will come from private firms taking over the NHS's own treatment centres, it has emerged.
A tender notice in the Official Journal of the EU invited expressions of interest from private firms seeking to provide services, from either NHS or private facilities, with the deadline closing earlier this month.
But two NHS centres - South West London Elective Orthopaedic Centre (SWLEOC), based at Epsom and St Helier trust, and Ravenscourt Park Hospital, part of Hammersmith Hospitals trust - have already told staff that management will be contracted out.
In a letter to staff, Epsom and St Helier chief executive Lorraine Clifton said: 'Organisations from the independent sector will be invited to bid for a contract to manage SWLEOC from Spring 2006.' A Hammersmith Hospitals trust spokesperson confirmed: 'The Department of Health in conjunction with the strategic health authority is offering private sector companies the opportunity to tender for services at Ravenscourt Park Hospital.' She added: 'This was done without the knowledge or agreement of the trust.' SHAs have been told to look at options for privatising other NHS centres. A spokesperson for Southampton University Hospitals trust, which hosts an NHS treatment centre, said: 'The DoH has asked all SHAs to develop ideas for what capacity might be transferred to the independent sector. We haven't yet identified work that might be transferred.' Critics have argued that the NHS centres are losing out as first-wave ITCs were given guaranteed volumes of work and paid at a higher rate per case.
Both SWLEOC and Ravenscourt Park have struggled to fill their beds. SWLEOC's£14.2m facilities were opened by the Queen only last year. But it has already run up a£4m deficit.
Ravenscourt Park is£12.5m in the red. The Hammersmith Hospitals spokesperson said the deficit was 'a consequence of there being too few cases last year to sustain the infrastructure'.
She added: 'Primary care trusts reduced their cases to save money, and work from other parts of the country to reduce waiting lists dried up. NHS trusts that could have referred cases to Ravenscourt Park Hospital had patients treated in the private sector, at higher costs.' NHS Confederation policy director Nigel Edwards said: 'The DoH tends to put more trust in independent sector management than in NHS management. There can be a tendency to reach for outsourcing where there are more systemic problems.' A DoH spokesperson said: 'These claims are speculative. Treatment centres help treat NHS patients faster and reduce waiting times whether operated by the NHS or an independent sector provider. No decision on whether to proceed with any particular proposal has been made and there are no agreed proposals to transfer any NHS treatment centres to the independent sector.'