The procurement process to outsource a revamped NHS Choices website is to miss a deadline set out by health minister Lord Howe for retendering to begin in 2013, HSJ has learned.

Lord Howe gave a personal assurance to private providers this spring that the procurement exercise for the website at the centre of efforts to give patients more control over their care would begin “later this calendar year” - but board papers published last week said the exercise was now slated to begin in April 2014.

A paper discussed at NHS England’s informatics services commissioning group’s leadership meeting last week gave more details of timings. It said that by September 2014 hurdles that would have crossed included delivery contracts being let, staff completing moves from the Health and Social Care Information Centre to private operators under the transfer of undertakings protection of employment rules and the Choices website being subject to a “full re-platforming”, or system update.

Lord Howe offered assurances to the private sector in April in a letter to the NHS Partners Network, a membership body for private providers to the NHS, following one of its members, Capita, raising concerns about the process.   

The health minister’s letter, seen by HSJ, said operating plans would “be published in the next couple of months” allowing Capita “a chance to engage on the procurement exercise later this calendar year”.

NHS England this week said the process was on track and not delayed. “We said we would launch procurement by the end of the financial year which, subject to Cabinet Office approvals, we are on track to do,” a spokeswoman said. 

Tim Kelsey, NHS England national director for patients and information, said: “The future is all about partnership with the private and third sectors.

“We will shortly be announcing the new operating model for health and social care digital services - this will be a new opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurs.”

The new site will provide a range of new functions, including “transactional” services to allow patients to book repeat prescriptions and GP appointments; “access focused” functions to aid personal health records access and “participative” tools like social media condition management forums.

The paper, by NHS England director of strategic systems and technology Beverley Bryant, also said a conventional outsourcing deal to a single private firm was being ruled out, citing “significantly increased cost” incurred by previous deals.

It said the preferred approach “involves outsourcing to multiple providers”.

HSJ exclusively revealed earlier this month that Capita, previously the sole contractor running the website charged the Department of Health, an additional £25m in “change charges”.

The paper said: “The effects of bundling all components together…and letting under a single fixed price contract for services (in life changes controlled via change control) significantly increases cost, moves us away from best of breed approach and creates market scarcity pushing up price and risk.”

The plans also revealed the new NHS Choices is being bundled up with a range of other NHS digital services, including those formerly offered by the now defunct NHS Direct.

“There are a range of digital service programmes running within the health and care sector in England (NHS Choices, NHS Direct Health and Symptom Checker, health apps library and the parent information service),” the paper said.