From 2011: Private Eye on NHS Privatisation

In their issue for 16th -29th September 2011, Private Eye published a block of articles on the government’s privatisation of the NHS. These discussed Circle Health’s attempts to take over the management of Hinchingbrooke Hospital Huntingdon; the proposed putting out to private contract of Suffolk’s 27 community health services, the role of Dr Stephen Dunne in the privatisation process, and negotiations between the NHS and the Helios German private health care group. The articles ran:

NHS PLC
East Extract

Three months after Circle Health, the self-proclaimed “John-Lewis-style health partnership”, was supposed to take over the management of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon, the Treasury has still not given its stamp of approval.

Despite NHS East of England’s desperation to privatise the 330-bed hospital, government beancounters seem unimpressed by Circle’s bosses (£35m last year) and debts (a massive £82m, against a notional £95m share value of the company). And mandarins may not be happy to sanction a business plan that in the current climate looks increasingly potty. Unless Circle begins to run the 330-bed Cambridgeshire hospital at a surplus, it will receive no payment under the franchise agreement. Yet Circle’s plan hinges on “growing the business” and treating more patients – at a time when local health commissioners are desperate to reduce the use of hospital beds and cut the amount paid for each part of any treatment.

Also, time is running out. While Circle’s leading figure, Ali Parsa, is keen to promote the fact that doctors, nurse and clinicians have a stake in the company, most of the money and decision-making power rests in the 50.1 percent share owned by Circle Holdings. And with the company admitting to problems from angry creditors and uncertainty about the finances even of its showpiece 28-bed boutique hospital in Bath, the entire project would already have sunk without the injection of private equity capital from some of the most powerful and rapacious hedge funds on the planet. Between them they have invested around £100m in Circle but seen no return. How much longer will they stick around as Circle struggles to generate any return?

Also on NHS East of England’s “for sale” list are four “lots” comprising all 27 of Suffolk’s community health services.

Not surprisingly, five private companies have made the shortlist of nine bidders for one or all of the £43m, three-year contracts to provide services from paediatrics, nursing and therapy to adult community hospitals, nurses, physiotherapists and intervention teams.

Assura Medical, bought up last year by Richard Branson’s Virgin group, is interested in bidding for just one “lot”, while services giant Serco hopes to bag all four. Privatised social care company Essex Cares Limited and two equipment providers, Nottingham Rehab Supplies and Medequip Assistive Technology, are in the running for single lots. None of these companies has any base in Suffolk, and none has provided NHS community services before – although Essex Cares does provide social care for the county council.

Although many health authorities have put their community services out to tender since they were required to have separate “commissioning” and “providing”, hardly any private sector companies have secured contracts. Of the four NHS trusts in the running, only one, the West Suffolk Hospital Trust, is local.

But as it’s the East of England, the smart money suggests bosses will lean on the NHS providers to pull out. After all, at Hinchingbrooke the withdrawal of bids from neighbouring foundation trusts left the field clear for Circle, whose experience in running a huge general hospital was limited to a costly 28-bed showpiece.

Leading the privatisation mission in NHS East of England is director of strategy Dr Stephen Dunn, whose outstanding achievements for the private sector were recognised in this year’s Healthinvestor Awards, in a glitzy presentation at London’s Grosvenor House hotel.

Dunn, whose £125,000-plus salary is paid by the NHS, won the award for “Outstanding Contribution by an individual” for his tireless efforts to push through the privatisation of management at Hinchingbrooke Hospital. And also won the magazine’s “Deal of the Year” award for setting up the ground-breaking franchise, which the judges said “has huge implications for both the public and private sectors”.

Given that the “Deal of the Year” has not yet got Treasury approval, some of his NHS management colleagues were less complimentary. But now that the private sector values his services so highly, no doubt there will always be a place for him in the new NHS plc.

Helios to Pay

Discussions between the NHS and German health group Helios on “how international hospital provider groups may help to tackle the performance improvement of English hospitals” present and alarming prospect.

Helios is part of the Fresenius Group, which was fined £82m in the US in May for having “recklessly disregarded federal law when billing the [US taxpayer-funded] Medicare program for home dialysis supplies and equipment”. Although the over-billing itself occurred just before Fresenius bought the companies involved, Fresenius itself was accused in relation to this case.

Nor was it the German group’s first brush with American law enforcers. Ten years before, Fresenius settled the largest ever healthcare fraud case with civil and criminal penalties approaching $500m after making fraudulent claims from Medicare and paying kickbacks to get work referred its way. Then, in 2005, another arm of Fresenius admitted its role in a pharmaceuticals cartel in South Africa, designed to “manipulate prices for pharmaceutical and hospital products”.

There’s nothing to suggest Fresenius’ record is much worse than those of other private health companies with hungry investors to satisfy, but what hope does it offer for its role in “performance improvement”?

Together, these articles present a dire picture of the privatisation of the NHS. Circle Health only last week walked away from its contract to manage hospitals. Those in its care had appallingly low standards of care, and the company itself complained that it could not make a profit. This article shows that Treasury officials were aware from the start that the company would have problems managing a large, proper hospital, rather than its 28-bed showpiece.

The article about the privatisation of NHS services in Suffolk also shows that private firms simply aren’t as competitive as the NHS. The privatisation is ideologically led, and pushed through by ministers. The privatisation is also being pushed by managers like Stephen Dunn, who no doubt fancy themselves as highly paid companies executives.

As for Helios, they join Unum insurance as a private company convicted of massive fraud in America.

Overall, these articles present a picture that NHS privatisation is being forced through by greedy, incompetent companies, offering extremely poor service and ripping off the taxpayer in the process. Precisely the kind of companies Cameron and Osborne want running the NHS as they privatise it.

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One Response to “From 2011: Private Eye on NHS Privatisation”

  1. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

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