NHS Direct has renewed its ambition to become a foundation trust and is pinning its future viability on becoming a “major provider” of the NHS 111 urgent care service.

In a letter sent last week to health secretary Andrew Lansley, seen by HSJ, NHS Direct chair Joanne Shaw said it had a “reasonable prospect of winning sufficient 111 contracts to make the organisation viable as an FT from April 2013”.

The timetable has the backing of the Department of Health policy team and NHS Direct’s main commissioner NHS East of England.

The letter follows an invitation by Mr Lansley last November to consider becoming a foundation trust, in line with the policy that all trusts should gain foundation status by 2014.

NHS Direct was forced to drop previous plans for FT status in 2008 after former health secretary Alan Johnson expressed concerns that the government would not be able to call on the trust in a national emergency if it was independent.

It has faced an uncertain future since the government announced plans for NHS 111 to achieve universal coverage by April 2013, essentially removing the need for NHS Direct’s 0845 number.

But the letter reveals the DH and NHS East of England will also “seek to maintain a stable financial platform” for NHS Direct until the end of 2012-13.

After that, it will become a “new organisation capable of competing for future 111 contracts on an any willing provider basis”.

The trust has not been told whether its website will continue to be commissioned at a national level.

Chief executive Nick Chapman told HSJ NHS Direct was looking to become a “major provider” of NHS 111, working closely with ambulance services.

He said: “We are looking at a variety of different ways we can add value to the NHS but there is no doubt that the main focus is on the new 111 service.”

The trust is involved in varying degrees with the four existing NHS 111 pilots and expects to play a role in many of the next round of pilots that are being considered by the DH.

Although the future of the website is uncertain, the trust is focusing on developing its online services, such as health and symptom checkers and patient decision aids, which it hopes other providers will pay to use on their websites.