STRUCTURE: A merger or independent franchise are among the options for a hospital trust which has a private finance deal preventing it from achieving foundation status.

Health minister Simon Burns said yesterday in parliament that St Helens and Knowsley Trust could merge with “North Cheshire Trust” - the old name for Warrington and Halton Hospitals Foundation Trust.

As previously revealed by HSJ, St Helens and Knowsley was named on a list of 22 trusts that have private finance initiatives acting as a barrier to foundation status. It is due to pay a unitary charge of £41.5m this year, with that sum increasing by roughly £1m for each subsequent year until 2042.

It has a turnover of approximately £250m, compared with Warrington and Halton’s £200m.

Mr Burns outlined the option for merger in a debate in which he stressed the hospital would never be privatised.

He added: “A final option would be to consider tendering the management of the trust.

“Under that option, management teams from within the NHS, from a social enterprise or from the private sector would put forward their ideas on how to find a way forward for the trust.”

The merger and private franchise options were contained within St Helens and Knowsley’s tripartite formal agreement, which was sent to the Department of Health at the end of March and leaked to local MPs.

Mr Burns said he ”took a deliberate decision not to see the draft” of the TFA and “while discussions are ongoing it would be inappropriate for me to do so and I will not see it. Therefore, it would also be inappropriate at this stage to publish the documents.”

His position was criticised by St Helens MP Dave Watts who said: “Minister, the local community and the local MPs will believe that that is a totally unacceptable stance to take. It is clear that there are grave doubts about the future financial viability of the trust—the St Helens and Knowsley trust, including the Whiston hospital—and that a number of options are being considered in the current discussions about the trust.

“For the Minister to hide behind the fact that he does not want to see that report removes the accountability that we would expect him to have. Will he reconsider that decision and will he look at that document? Also, will he rule out some of the options, including the private provider option? If he does not do those things, people will continue to suspect that his Department is being driven by the fact that it wants to privatise our hospitals, but he and other people in the Department do not want to see the documents that are being discussed now.

“I can see no reason why he should not see that draft document and why we should not see it.”

Mr Burns said the TFA document for St Helens and Knowsley would be published in June or July.

Private management is implicitly an option for all trusts that cannot achieve foundation status any other way by the April 2014 deadline.

As HSJ exclusively reported last week, with the confirmation that the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital would consider a private management franchise there are now four trusts that have admitted it is an option – Trafford Healthcare, St Helens and Knowsley, RNOH and Hinchingbrooke Healthcare.