Government must halt 'stealth privatisation' of dozens of GP practices, warns Labour

Labour has urged the government to halt the 'stealth privatisation' of dozens of GP practices taken over by a US health insurance company that now provides general practice for 500,000 NHS patients.

Labour shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth (Photo: Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
Labour shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth (Photo: Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

GPonline reported last month that Operose Health - a subsidiary of US healthcare giant the Centene Corporation, which provides health insurance to around 25m Americans - was set to expand its portfolio of NHS GP practices to 58 by becoming the owner of major primary care provider AT Medics.

The deal will make Operose almost certainly the largest provider of NHS GP services in England - with nearly 1% of the total 6,658 practices in the country under its control, covering a total patient population in excess of 500,000.

Labour shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth has called on the government to step in and halt the transfer - calling it 'arguably a stealth privatisation with huge implications for patient care'.

NHS privatisation

Speaking in parliament last week Mr Ashworth challenged health and social care secretary Matt Hancock to intervene. He said: 'There was no patient consultation, no public scrutiny. This is arguably a stealth privatisation with huge implications for patient care. Will he step in, halt the transfer, ensure it is fully scrutinised and prevent takeovers like this happening in the future?'

Responding to the calls from his Labour counterpart, Mr Hancock gave no commitment to intervene. He said: 'Of course what matters for patients is the quality of patient care. We've seen again and again especially during the pandemic is what matters for people is the quality of care - and that's what we should look out for and that is I know what doctors and nurses and other staff both in primary care and across the board are working so hard to deliver.'

GP contracts

The major expansion of Centene's foothold in NHS primary care has sparked concern among GPs, with the Doctors in Unite union warning the health service was being 'parcelled up and sold off under the radar'. The union has called for the cancellation of APMS contracts held by AT Medics.

Operose Health already held contracts for 21 GP practices in England covering around 120,000 patients - and has added a further 37 practices, with 390,000 further patients, through the takeover of AT Medics.

The company now holds more practice contracts and serves more NHS patients than either the Modality or Our Health Partnership 'superpractices', each of which serve around 400,000 patients. Its services cover more than five times as many patients as the current population of Babylon's GP at Hand - which operates the largest single patient list.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline: 'The BMA believes the partnership model with a nationally negotiated contract for general practice is the best way to deliver the most appropriate and effective services to patients.

Partnership model

'We know general practice works best when partners and managers are in direct contact with the community they serve, through their day to day consultations.

'It is important that GPs are recognised to be at the heart of the community and are able to build those key personal relationships with patients which are so important in delivering appropriate and effective care based on the needs of their patients.

'However, we need to see significantly increased investment in workforce, infrastructure and premises to ensure general practice is sustainable and to enable GPs to meet the growing health needs of their patients.'

Asked to comment on the transfer of ownership of AT Medics to Operose Health, NHS London told GPonline last month that patient care 'remains unaffected by this change'.

A spokesperson for Operose Health said last month: 'AT Medics and Operose Health have formed a partnership in order to create the leading provider of NHS primary care services in the UK. The new partnership is committed to achieving high quality clinical outcomes and standards of care for our patients and communities.'

Operose Health said patients would 'continue to receive the same excellent standards of care' and that all necessary regulatory steps had been followed.

The spokesperson added: 'Day-to-day operations of our GP surgeries, the care that we deliver to our patients and the services accessed through our surgeries will not change. Patients will continue to consult with us in the same way that they do today. 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.'

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