Private healthcare providers have been 'reassured' of their future role in the NHS after health secretary Alan Johnson pledged to rectify an IT problem that has prevented patients knowing about their right to choose private care.

Spire Healthcare commercial director Richard Jones, who is chair of the NHS Partners Network which represents private providers, told HSJ that Mr Johnson used a meeting last week with the network to deliver a 'very clear message' to the sector that there was 'no rowing back on choice and plurality'.

The private sector had grown increasingly concerned about its involvement and the security of its existing investments following the scaling back of wave two of the independent sector treatment centre programme.

Mr Jones said: 'We were told the scaling back of phase two of the ISTC programme was merely a pragmatic decision as these decisions are best made locally.

'But Johnson is clear he is firmly committed to the notion of free choice. He said that from next April, the treatment choice of NHS patients will include all local providers in the extended choice network. That will put an end to the current situation where many [private] providers are excluded from the local choice menu or the front page in Choose and Book.'

Mr Johnson's promise follows complaints from private providers that primary care trusts were neglecting to put them on them on the first screen that patients see when using Choose and Book with their GPs.

Industry sources differ over whether the failure to put them on the first screen is due to technical problems or PCT opposition to private providers.

But HSJ understands that Mr Johnson's reassurances are unlikely to appease providers, who feel that they are entitled to receive compensation to reflect the bidding costs of aborted independent treatment centre schemes.

Mr Jones said: 'A number of [independent] providers are still bitterly disappointed by the scale-back of phase two of the ISTC programme. We need to see actions following these encouraging words.'