The NHS Choices website will not be outsourced until April next year, more than a year after initially expected, HSJ has been told.
The project to re-launch the website - which will have new services such as the ability to allow patients to book GP appointments and repeat prescriptions in an attempt to give them more control over their care - has been hit by a series of delays.
Health minister Lord Howe initially pledged the procurement process for the new services would “take place before 31 March 2014”.
However an NHS England spokeswoman last week said that full details of how Choices would be contracted out had yet to be finalised. The site is currently overseen by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
The spokeswoman told HSJ: “We have already conducted initial market engagement with a number of providers and intend to go back out to the market in the spring to test and refine our sourcing strategy further to inform procurement plans for later in the year.
“To ensure service continuity and provide certainty for the staff, we don’t expect to transition to outsourced services before April 2015.”
Lord Howe gave a personal assurance to private providers last spring that the procurement exercise for the website would begin “later this calendar year” to allow the outsourcing to be complete for March this year.
However, a paper discussed at NHS England’s informatics services commissioning group’s leadership meeting last October said staff would have completed their moves from the information centre to private operators by September 2014.
NHS England’s preferred approach to contract out the site’s operation involves outsourcing to “multiple providers”, according to documents published in October. This represents a departure from past contracts which have involved a sole contractor.
Beverley Bryant, NHS England’s director of strategic systems and technology, that month ruled out another conventional outsourcing deal due to “significantly increased costs” incurred in previous contracts.
NHS England is hopeful many of the providers will be small and medium sized businesses.
HSJ contacted a raft of larger contractors expected to be interested in running the website.
Optum senior vice-president of global business development Katherine Ward, who is currently overseeing the company’s UK operations, indicated the company, which was recently rebranded from UnitedHealth UK, was interested in playing a role.
She told HSJ: “Optum has been involved in early stage discussions about the future of how the NHS can develop its digital contact with patients and the NHS Choices tender will be an important part of this.”
Tata Consulting Services, Fujitsu and IBM - all of which unsuccessfully bid to run NHS Choices in 2008 - refused to comment on their future plans. Capita and Serco have similarly refused to comment.
A spokeswoman from Atos, the global IT services company and also one of those shortlisted in 2008, told HSJ that while the company would look at the tender “with interest”, it was yet to make a decision.
A spokeswoman for Dr Foster Intelligence, the organisation that first established NHS Choices, said: [The company] strongly supports [NHS Choices’] aims and is excited by the opportunities presented to allow a more diverse range of organisations to contribute to its success, and we hope we can continue to support its ongoing evolution.”