The British Medical Association has called for freedom of information law to apply equally across all GP providers, after it emerged that Virgin Care was required by its contract with NHS England not to respond to requests.
This contractual requirement emerged after HSJ submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to eight large GP providers, asking for information about online access to GP records, practice participation groups, practice income, and submissions to a consultation on the GP sector.
Virgin Care was the only provider which did not respond.
The seven which replied under the act included The Practice, a corporate chain which runs dozens of practices; IntraHealth, another corporate provider; and the Hurley Group, the large provider which runs about a dozen practices and health centres in London.
The others which responded included the Vitality Partnership, a large joint GP partnership in Birmingham; and Lakeside Surgery, a large practice in Corby with a 47,000 patient list.
Virgin said it was required under its primary care contracts, which are held by NHS England, not to respond. It said: “We are legally obliged to pass any requests received under the FOIA to our commissioners and provide them with any information they require in order to respond.”
An NHS England official confirmed: “[We] have discussed handling of this FOI request with Virgin Care, whose contract stipulates that all requests should be forwarded for answer to the commissioner (in this case NHS England).” Virgin also offered to deal with the requests as “business as usual” inquiries, rather than under the act.
Neither Virgin nor NHS England have explained the reason for the difference in arrangements between Virgin and the other providers.
However, it is understood it may be because all Virgin Care’s practices are run under “alternative provider medical services” contracts.
The FOI act states it applies to “any person providing primary medical services” and “any person providing general medical services”, in relation to the provision of those services. However, it appears not to apply to practices run under APMS contracts.
BMA GPs committee deputy chair Richard Vautrey told HSJ that the BMA believed “APMS practices should be covered in exactly the same way as PMS and GMS”.
He said: “All practices should be treated the same and be under the same obligations as far as the Freedom of Information Act is concerned.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the legislation, said: “A revised code of practice will be published this year to promote openness about outsourced public services in response to FOI requests.”
NHS England spending data to be published
NHS England has said it will publish data on its spending during 2013-14 imminently, more than 18 months after the organisation was created and 13 months after it took on its full powers.
As a public body it is required to publish details of every payment it makes of £25,000 or more, under regulations introduced by prime minister David Cameron in 2010.
Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s director of patients and information, was from 2011 to 2012 the government’s transparency adviser.
Generally organisations publish monthly updates of their data. NHS England’s delay is believed to be due in part to the complexity of setting up the organisation and processing the data, whose annual direct spending budget is around £27bn.