The NHS has been served up to “armies of lawyers and accountants” from the private healthcare industry, the leader of Britain's doctors has said, accusing the Government of a double-pronged attack on the health service driven by privatisation and cuts to services.
In a strongly worded attack, Dr Mark Porter, chair of council for the British Medical Association, accused the Coalition of ushering in a “a bumper year for multinationals” and of inflicting cuts to the health service driven by an “uninformed and arrogant assumption” that the NHS is inefficient.
Speaking to doctors at the BMA's annual conference, Dr Porter said that doctors would “fight every day” until the General Election to expose “the chronic lack of investment” in the NHS.
Fears over mounting pressures on the health service are dominating the final BMA conference before the 2015 election. In a sign of deep frustration with the Government, doctors voted to oppose their plans for a “seven-day NHS” in which non-urgent services would be available at the weekend – arguing that under current NHS budget constraints, hospitals would have to close in order to free up cash to pay doctors and nurses to work extra hours.
Doctors are also furious over the increasing role of competition and private providers in the NHS. Although the Government maintains that its health reforms did not change NHS competition laws, Dr Porter said that “whatever the reassurances, a bizarre market culture has been created”.
Members voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion expressing “dismay” at recent figures which suggested that private providers had won the majority of tenders for NHS services since the Coalition's health reforms.
Dr Porter said that pressure to tender NHS contracts to as many potential providers as possible had led to “market lunacy”. In one case, he said, no fewer 500 potential providers had been asked if they could provide an expression of interest in running NHS services in Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire. The BMA claimed the list included American private healthcare companies and even “faith-based” health groups run by Franciscan nuns.
Dr Porter said the paperwork and bureaucracy involved with such bids was unaffordable at a time of budgetary constraint.
He said the paperwork and bureaucracy involved with such bids was unaffordable at a time of budgetary constraint.
“Do we really want an NHS that is so obsessed with private companies tendering for the work? Or do we want an NHS that is passionate about tending to the weak? It doesn't have time to be both,” he said.
The Government has protected the NHS budget, but annual funding increases, which used to rise with ever-increasing demand, has remained flat for five years. All three political parties are now under pressure to confirm whether or not they will back a significant increase to the health service's £110bn annual budget amid signs that the performance of the NHS on key measures such as cancer treatment waiting times and GP access is beginning to dip.
Ministers also deny that the health reforms changed the rules regarding tendering of NHS contracts.
A Department of Health spokesperson said “It is critical that patients get the best possible care, free at the point of use, no matter who provides it. NHS competition rules haven't changed under this government but the bureaucracy-busting reforms are saving over £1bn a year and spending on private sector providers equates to just six per cent of the total NHS budget.”
“Market lunacy”: how the private sector encroaches on the NHS
A review of NHS services in Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes is taking place, costing more than £3m. According to the BMA, the two clinical commissioning groups involved have written to no fewer than 500 potential providers asking if they wish to provide an expression of interest in running NHS services.
The list the BMA has seen includes potential providers from 14 different countries, including 150 US healthcare companies. Among the companies contacted was the Louisiana-based Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, and the Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsered Ministries in Wisconsin, both faith-based groups run by nuns. Representatives for the Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes Healthcare Review said they had only contacted six international organisations, but the BMA insisted many more have been contacted. The Department of Health said that local commissioners shouldn't “waste cash sending letters halfway across the world”.
Analysis from January this year produced by the NHS Support Federation found that 39 of 57 NHS contracts awarded between April and December went to private firms.
While the Government maintains that their health reforms have not forced competition on the NHS, many CCGs, which commission NHS health services, have spent large amounts of money on hiring competition lawyers to ensure that contracts are in line with the new laws. Research by Labour revealed that £5m had been spent by CCGs on competition lawyers – enough for 120 nurses. However, the Government maintains that competition law was introduced into the NHS by Labour themselves.
Healthcare from private sector providers equates to around six per cent of total NHS expenditure - 1.3 per cent more of the NHS budget today than in 2010