Private Eye published this article below in their edition for 12th – 25th July 2002. It discusses the lobbying of the then-Labour government for NHS contracts by Kaiser Permanente, a US private healthcare company. As a private company, Kaiser Permanente did not provide cover for the poorest fifth of the US population. This is pretty much indicative of the companies now queuing up for access to the health service, now being privatised piecemeal by the Tories. And if this continues, this is how British healthcare will look after the NHS is privatised.
While health ministers inside the House of Commons continue to accuse the Tories of intending to privatise the NHS, outside the Commons they themselves are showing increasing sign of sympathy with moves to, er, privatise the NHS.
In Eye 1056 we referred to a paper in the British Medical Journal by American doctors pointing out the advantages of Kaiser Permanente, a huge private health organisation in California with keen ambitions to expand in the UK.
On 20 June the annual lecture of the Office of Health Economics, financed entirely by the drugs industry, was delivered in the prestigious headquarters of the Royal College of Physicians. The speaker was David Lawrence, departing chief executive of Kaiser Permanente. He outlined the tremendous advantages of providing health care the Kaiser way, without making any effort to deal with the chief objection: that as a private organisation financed by private insurance, Kaiser cannot and does not provide health care for the poorest 20 percent of California’s population.
The NHS, on the other hand, does not exclude anyone on grounds of income or wealth. The Eye’s many spies at the lecture, which was packed with representatives of the drug companies (though the health department was conspicuous by its absence), describe Dr Lawrence’s performance as “long on charm, short on facts.”
Almost simultaneously, and naturally by coincidence, the authors of the original pro-Kaiser paper in the BMJ have replied in that journal to the loud and almost universal criticism of it from defenders of the NHS. Somehow, rather like Dr Lawrence, the fails to deal with the main and obvious criticism that Kaiser does not provide health care for the poorest (and therefore usually the sickest) fifth of the population.
In his speech Lawrence referred several times to his cooperation with and admiration for “Don” – believed to be a reference to Don Berwick, a keen American medical privatiser who has just been appointed by the government to the National Health Service modernisation board.
Meanwhile more news about Kaiser comes to the Eye from the Los Angeles Times whose 17 May issue carried the curious headline: KAISER CLERKS PAID MORE FOR HELPING LESS. The paper revealed that in 200 and 2001, call centre clerks working for Kaiser could earn bonuses of up to 10 percent of their salaries if they spent less than three minutes 45 seconds on the phone per patient.
The call centres were available to Kaiser’s three million members in Northern California. The bonus system was denounced by the California Nurses Association, representing Kaiser’s registered nurses. They complained that the call centre system allowed unlicensed telephone clerks to make decisions about scheduling appointments or referring patients to medical advice nurses. The association claimed such a task was restricted by state law to “licensed medical personnel”. The newspaper also quotes a doctor at one of the call centres describing the system as “a barrier between patients and their clinical providers”.
While a substantial section of the medical establishment sucks up to Kaiser, there are increasing signs of the close relationship between the government, the Labour party and the private health and drugs industries. On 27th May, for instance, health minister Lord Hunt, a champion of PFI in the health service, opened the spanking new High Wycombe Centre for the drugs company Pharmacia; and the Fabian Society, a constituent part of the Labour Party , whose founders proclaimed the advantages of public ownership, is running a monthly lecture (plus the usual buffet lunch) as part of its Health Policy Forum, proudly inaugurated last October by health secretary Alan Milburn.
The forum is in association with (and mostly paid for by) the enormous French drugs company Aventis, whose annual turnover is $18bn.
Ed Miliband has made it clear he intends to reverse the Tories’ privatisation of the NHS. He needs our support, and provides hope that the NHS can be saved.