GP leaders from across the old fundholding divide have clashed over the future direction of primary care groups.

National Association of Fundholding Practices chair Rhidian Morris declared fundholding 'dead' last week as his organisation merged with the Association of Independent Multifunds to form the National Association of Primary Care.

But Michael Dixon, chair of the NHS Primary Care Group Alliance, which grew out of the former National Association of Commissioning GPs, questioned whether the fundholders had really changed their philosophy.

'The NAPC vows to 'strongly promote the right for practices to have a budget at practice level if they wish',' he said. 'That sounds like fundholding under another name. PCGs are at the centre of the new system and the focus for commissioning must be populations and not patients at practice level.'

Dr Morris gave a conditional endorsement of PCGs, saying they could become a 'control mechanism' or 'the most powerful enabling mechanism for primary care we have ever seen'.

'We chose to follow the latter, with all the accountability that such a route brings,' he said.

Dr Morris topped off his comments with personal praise for health minister Alan Milburn - a year after NAFP campaigned against Labour's proposals in the general election.

He said that in nine years of working with health secretaries and ministers he judged Mr Milburn to be 'in the top three'.

Mr Milburn returned the compliment by making a whistlestop visit to the NAPC launch. He said that PCGs offered more power to GPs than fundholding. 'They will give family doctors more leverage than they ever had to shape services for patients,' he said.

He also promised the new association: 'We will not always agree, but we will listen and we will work closely to make things happen.'

Dr Dixon hit back: 'The advertised presence of the minister of health at the launch looks suspiciously like the strong looking after the strong. He must remember that NAFP/AIM were opposed to his policies - which NACGP was not - and that he has done nothing to bridge the disinvestment gap non-fundholders face on IT, equipment and premises.'

See New Focus, page 14; Comment, page 17.