The computer company responsible for choose and book and a giant US healthcare organisation are among those poised to bid for the NHS Choices contract, HSJ can reveal.
Atos Origin, which is responsible for the delayed choose and book system, has confirmed its interest.
Humana, the Kentucky-based healthcare benefits company, is leading a consortium looking into bidding for the contract. BT has also expressed an interest.
Computer Sciences Corporation ruled itself out last week. Fujitsu declined to comment.
NHS Choices offers a wide range of information to the public, including an A-Z of conditions and treatments and health promotional information. There are also directories that enable users to find, compare and rate health services.
NHS Direct has offered its services to bidders as a sub-contractor. A spokesman said: 'We have been talking to a number of parties bidding for the contract about supporting their bid with an enhanced offer.'
Services offered included clinical sign-off, patient and public involvement, regional and national engagement and health alerts.
NHS Direct is negotiating with the Department of Health over its ongoing relationship with NHS Choices, including which website should provide what information.
The companies that have made their interest public are likely to be joined by a list of who's who in NHS IT, most of whom attended a briefing in November at the DoH.
These big players will financially dwarf the other known contender for the contract, Dr Foster Intelligence, which set up the current NHS Choices website in June under a£10m deal.
However, Dr Foster Intelligence insists it is adequately capitalised to qualify to bid and well placed to win the contract.
The company has spent the past few months beefing up the website. It had 25 website editorial staff in October and this has since been expanded.
Companies had until 3 December to express an interest in the contract, which was advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union in October. The tender is likely to run for seven months.
The OJEU advert described NHS Choices as 'the primary public-facing online service of the Department of Health'.
The Conservatives have condemned the cost of the three-year contract, valued at£60m-£80m.
Shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien compared the cost with the old www.nhs.uk site, out of which NHS Choices grew and which cost£1.3m a year.
He said: 'The cost increase in NHS Choices is absolutely scandalous. What a waste of taxpayers' money.
'How can [health secretary] Alan Johnson justify spending£80m rather than£3.9m?'
The DoH rejected the criticism, saying that Mr O'Brien was not comparing like with like. A spokesperson said: 'The figure he is using for NHS Choices is the value of the whole procurement, not just the running costs.'