Independent sector firms are set to be encouraged to work with NHS commissioning support units rather than sell directly to clinical commissioning groups, HSJ has learned.

A draft NHS Commissioning Board report on how it will manage the support services market recommends NHS commissioning support units – which have been set up by primary care trust staff – be allowed to enter into contracts of up to five years with CCGs.

It is hoped the move would stabilise the market and give CSUs the security to form partnership deals with private and third sector providers.

It will mean NHS CSUs are unlikely to face outside competition to provide to CCGs for the next three years. Final plans will be made public in June.

CCGs currently have service level agreements with CSUs to provide back office functions. The commissioning board has specified these should last 18 months at most, although HSJ revealed earlier this year that some have agreed longer deals.

Although the overall number of CSUs has fallen from 23 to 19 since last summer, there is a widespread expectation that there will be further mergers and takeovers between now and the first round of CSU contracting, expected in summer 2014, when the SLAs end.

Commissioning board director of commissioning support strategy Bob Ricketts told HSJ: “Enabling successful CSUs to secure longer-term contracts with commissioners should provide a foundation for future growth and partnering, and reduce the risk of market failure, and the costs and potential disruption of continuing market churn.”

He said there would be competition between NHS CSUs to drive up quality, but would also be managed to “encourage providers to network and partner effectively, and collaborate on sharing knowledge and best practice”.

There is little expectation that over the next three years private companies or charities will enter the market as standalone commissioning support providers.

Instead, the board is understood to be keen they are used to broaden CSUs’ skills, functions and resources.

To encourage this, the board is drawing up guidance to set out how CSUs can enter into commercial partnerships, which will be published this spring.

Under current thinking the commissioning board will not specify a range of service lines for CSUs to offer CCGs, nor will it set a price framework.

Although it will introduce “basic protections” over quality of services by the board, it is now not planning to formally regulate the market between now and 2016. The government’s policy is for NHS CSUs to be hosted by the commissioning board until 2016.