The government's national procurement programme for under-doctored areas looks set to be drastically scaled back or scrapped.
Next month the Department of Health is set to announce a second-wave procurement to bring in independent companies to run practices in areas with a shortage of doctors. However, sources close to the discussions have told HSJthat the size of the procurement is likely, at best, to be much smaller than originally intended.
Speaking at an HSJconference earlier this month, Bleddyn Rees, general counsel for the DoH's commercial directorate, confirmed that the government was intending to announce a further procurement next month.
Mr Rees admitted that there had been 'lots of problems' with the first wave under-doctored areas pilot sites, which saw the shelving of four of the original six areas where the government had planned to bring in the private sector to run GP surgeries.
He added that the first pilots had not had 'sufficient volume' and had been 'too prescriptive'.
However, sources close to the discussions have admitted to real fears that the second-wave procurement could stall as ministers prioritise organisational financial balance ahead of other targets.
One source said they understood the DoH would only announce four or five new sites while another said the figure could reach eight but go no further.
Mercury Health chief executive Mark Smith told HSJ that there needed to be much more 'openness' about the use of the procurement. 'My view is that primary care trusts are effectively supporting a cartel where they look after the incumbent GP practices,' he said.
He added that he feared the procurement would 'disappear' or that if it went ahead the government would not 'achieve their objectives of contestability and openness' because the scheme would be too small.
In the first wave, Mercury Health successfully bid to take over the running of a GP practice in City and Hackney teaching PCT. Care UK also secured a deal with Barking and Dagenham PCT to run a 7,000-patient GP surgery.
A DoH spokesman said that it was 'premature to start talking about numbers' for the scale of the second wave.
'We are aware that a number of commercial providers, third-sector organisations, social enterprises and entrepreneurial GPs are currently interested in entering into the market, but it is too early to start talking about which providers might be involved as advertisements for the contracts have not yet been placed,' he said.