THE NHS raced towards its biggest ever privatisation yesterday as five firms vied for Staffordshire cancer and care service contracts worth up to £1.2 billion.
Alongside British outsourcers Virgin Health and Interserve, US health privateers UnitedHealth, Maximus and CSC are all lobbying for business in a process which critics say is shrouded in secrecy.
Two local NHS “bidders,” The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust and Stoke’s University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, are being forced to splash cash in response as they compete for the treatment and end-of-life care contracts.
And in a shock twist much of the money being used to run the bidding war has come from cancer charity Macmillan.
The NGO argues it is merely offering “facilitators and advisers” with the aim of improving patients’ survival rates and care, but admits it has already spent nearly £1 million of donors’ money to fund clinical commissioning groups’ (CCGs) costs.
Veteran health service expert John Lister said people donating to Macmillan would be disturbed that their money was going to “promote a market system in Staffordshire.”
“I’m not often shocked — but this did take my breath away,” he said.
The £1.2bn deals would see direct control of services pass from CCGs, which were theoretically put in charge of NHS England budgets following Tory reforms, directly into the hands of the two winning bidders.
The winners will then channel cash towards their chosen providers of frontline care.
Unison general secretary David Prentis has written to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, formerly boss of UnitedHealth, to demand a halt to the process.
Mr Prentis warned yesterday that the “dangerous experiment” in Staffordshire threatened a “massive” privatisation of services. He said: “The huge interest from the private sector shows they believe there are profits to be made from people’s ill health.”
Mr Lister argued that the whole tendering process was unnecessary.
“All they are trying to do is organise these services better. You don’t need a contracting process for that,” he said.
“It’s basically saying to private companies: ‘Here’s a pot of money. What we want you to do is organise it’.
“It would be have been quicker, simpler and cheaper if CCGs had called in the trusts and said: ‘We want it done this way’.”
Staffordshire campaigner and cancer patient Paul Giles said thousands in the area were opposed to the plans but had been sidelined and accused of putting people’s lives at risk.
“There’s no justification for this complete and utter overhaul,” he said. “What skills have the likes of Virgin to run this? The evidence so far is that they can’t do it any better.
“It’s just more crucial money being thrown away.”
The Staffordshire contracts are up for grabs as a direct result of the coalition’s Health and Social Care Act, which will face an opposition-backed parliamentary challenge from Labour MP Clive Efford on November 21.