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‘Halt the seizing of our GP surgeries’

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is urged to intervene as US giant takes control of two Islington practices

05 March, 2021 — By Calum Fraser

 Health Secretary Matt Hancock

THE row over a US health insurer’s takeover of GP surgeries in Islington has ended up in parliament – with Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged to intervene to “halt” the deal.

The Tribune revealed two weeks ago how a subsidiary of the Centene Corporation had seized control of NHS contracts without any public debate or scrutiny.

On Thursday, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth raised the issue in the House of Commons as he faced his government counterpart.

He told Mr Hancock there was a “huge implication for patient care” and called for greater scrutiny of “stealth privatisation”.

The Tribune’s front page last week

Centene, one of the biggest health insurance companies in the US, now has control of two Islington practices through its wholly-owned subsidiary Operose Health UK.

It was given the green light to run the Mitchison Road surgery in Canonbury and the Hanley Primary care Centre. Also added to its portfolio is the King’s Cross Road Surgery, which although located one road into Camden, has many patients form Islington on its books.

In total, Camden has four practices included in the same deal.

A campaign meeting has been called by the Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition and a demonstration is being planned for outside the offices of Operose Health, in Fitzrovia.

Mr Ashworth asked Mr Hancock during their to-and-fro at the despatch box: “In London, GP services of 375,000 patients were taken over by the US health insurance corp Centene. There was no patient consultation. There was no public scrutiny.

The Hanley Primary Care Centre

“Will he step in? Halt the transfer, ensure it is fully securitised and prevent takeovers like this happening in the future?”

Mr Hancock – one of the faces of the government’s response to the coronavirus – did not answer the question directly, but said: “We have seen again and again, especially throughout the pandemic, that what matters to people is the quality of care. That is what we should look out for.”

Operose also has the contract to run the borough’s “extended hours” service, which operates out of four more practices in Camden.

The change in control – from AT Medics, which already ran the practices, to the new company – was effectively approved by North Central London (NCL) Clinical Commissioning Group in December.

Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party, has added his voice to a chorus of outrage after more than 30 GP surgeries here and elsewhere had control shifted.

“I am totally shocked by this,” Mr Corbyn told the Tribune.

The Mitchison Road Surgery in Canonbury

“This shows what a slippery slope NHS privatisation is. I raised the issue of NHS outsourcing and privatisation with [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson on Monday and will continue to campaign on this vital issue.”

Last week, the current Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer wrote to NCL outlining his “concerns” about the legal process behind the decision.

Mr Starmer has yet to get a reply, but the health funding decision making authority has responded to Professor Sue Richards, from Keep Our NHS Public, in an email outlining why there was no legal basis for rejecting the change.

Paul Sinden, NCL’s chief operating officer, said in the letter that AT Medics practices had been performing “above the national average” in various markers, adding: “The request for change of control to another company is permissible, therefore the CCG has to consider a contract holder’s request.

“There are not immediate grounds for refusal.”

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth

The takeover here was first reported in the Tribune last month.

Operose Health, formerly called Centene UK, boasts a board of directors with in-depth experience of negotiating the complex world of NHS procurement.

Its chief executive Samantha Jones was, before joining the company, the director of new care models at NHS England.

While the change in control may be ticking all the right boxes, the concept of one of the biggest US corporations having a stake in the NHS has outraged anti-privatisation campaigners.

Shirley Franklin, of the Defend the Whittington Coalition, said: “What on earth is an American health insurance company doing owning British GP practices? This whole thing stinks.”

AT Medics managing director Omar Din, who also now sits on the Operose Health board, said: “Day to day operations of our GP surgeries, the care that we deliver to our patients and the services accessed through our surgeries are not being changed. Patients will continue to consult with us in the same way that they do today.

Shirley Franklin, of the Defend the Whittington Coalition

“Our practice teams will be the same and all of the AT Medics Leadership Team are staying with the organisation as part of our new partnership.”

A spokesperson for Operose Health said: “We have followed all the required regulatory procedures, including obtaining consent from our CCGs. As a provider of NHS services, care remains free at the point of delivery.

“In addition, and as with all other GP services throughout the country, we will continue to be regulated and inspected by the Care Quality Commission.

“Our focus has been and will remain ensuring we provide high quality care for the populations we serve.”

The Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition public meeting is due to take place online from 4pm on March 16.

Centene Corp, Missouri, has not responded to requests for comment from the Tribune.

Nationally, a recently leaked White Paper from the government has suggested NHS outsourcing will be scaled back. But the private sector has already won £20billion in contracts throughout the competition era, which began under the ‘New Labour’ governments of the early 2000s and was ramped up by reforms brought in by the Conservatives in 2012.

An NCL CCG spokesman said: “Patient care is our absolute priority. Islington residents will continue to receive the same great quality of care from their practice, provided by the same GPs and nurses.”

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