Published: 20/12/2001, Volume III, No.5786 Page 10

A travel insurance firm is in negotiations with the Department of Health to provide operations overseas on the NHS.

Operations Abroad, a subsidiary of Stockport-based Sterling Travel Insurance Services, has been set up 'to offer health authorities a solution to the many organisational problems arising from the change in government policy on sending NHS patients overseas'. It is offering a package that includes travel arrangements for patients and relatives, medical notes transfer, and assistance to patients while they are abroad. But the firm is also acting as the exclusive UK agent for the Interbalkan European Medical Centre in Thessaloniki, Greece, run by the private-sector Athens Medical Group.

Health secretary Alan Milburn's announcement that HAs and primary care trusts could commission services throughout the EU has opened the floodgates to providers seeking business from the NHS.

Channel primary care group chief executive Peter Huntley, project manager for the three southcoast 'test-bed sites' for sending patients to EU countries, said: 'They're coming out of the woodwork. Even individual clinicians are offering services to the NHS.'

The Operations Abroad brochure says hospitals will be 'chosen for their advanced surgical facilities and highly qualified specialists of all medical disciplines'.

But general manager Kenneth Taylor admitted that the company had 'not done any clinical work' to evaluate standards at the Thessaloniki hospital. There would be 'no point' in doing this until the NHS had laid down its criteria, he said. Operations Abroad aims to take groups of NHS chief executives to see the hospital early next year, he said.Mr Taylor claimed the company had 'a tremendous amount of experience when people are taken ill abroad', including liaising with hospitals abroad.

A DoH spokeswoman confirmed that Operations Abroad had met its officials. 'In terms of contracts, nothing has been signed, ' she said.

She added: 'Everyone's touting for business. But most of our discussions are with trusts here.'

Operations Abroad would 'have an opportunity to bid if There is any tendering exercise', she said.

Mr Huntley has had 'an initial scoping meeting' with Operations Abroad. 'We have not agreed to do anything at the moment, ' he said.

'We wouldn't do anything with them until the place had been assessed clinically.' He believes the NHS will probably need to set up an organisation to commission and manage treatment overseas.