Local commissioners are set to meet MP Bill Esterson (Lab, Sefton Central) this week after he asked health secretary Jeremy Hunt to intervene.
Mr Esterson told MPs that when SSP Health took over practices in Merseyside last year it had promised full-time GPs and improved services.
‘Yet after well over a year several of the practices are still run by locums. We have seen vulnerable, elderly people unable to get appointments for many days, if not weeks, and those who can have gone to other practices,' he said.
SSP, which is run by two Manchester GPs, holds contracts on over 40 practices across Merseyside and greater Manchester. The company says that 'objective assessments show clear improvements' since it took over the practices.
Politically motivated criticism
A spokeswoman said: ‘It appears that there is a politically motivated drive against private providers from various quarters.'
APMS contracts for around 20 practices serving 65,000 patients were won by the firm in spring 2013. The practices were previously run by a local community NHS trust, the PCT and another private provider.
The new contracts involved a cut in funding, and SSP says it was given short notice to take over the practices following the tender process.
Following Mr Esterson’s intervention last week a spokesperson for NHS England Merseyside said: ‘We take any concerns that patients may have about services very seriously and we will be meeting with Bill Esterson MP later this week to discuss the issues raised.’
Mr Esterson told GP he had received a ‘string of complaints’ about SSP practices in his constituency.
Concerns over practice
He was particularly concerned about a practice in Hightown - the only one in the village. The MP said some patients were travelling by train to switch practices.
‘[SSP] met with me when they took over 18 months ago,' he said. ‘They promised they would replace the locums they brought in with full-time GPs and that they would be improving the service; there would be permanent staff running the practice; that they believed they had won the contract because they could run in more cheaply than the PCT had been running it. Eighteen months later - a string of complaints.’
He feared if patients continued to leave, it could become unviable and close.
Mr Esterson is calling on the DH and NHS England to ensure a quality service and to consider proposals for a practice from a neighbouring town to set up an alternative service in the village.
A spokeswoman for SSP said despite inheriting problems with staffing arrangements which led to a year-long employment grievance process the practices had ‘daily safe clinical cover, fully compliant with the contract’.
Locums were necessary for staffing cover she said. ‘If locums were not engaged then there would have been insufficient cover to deal with patient needs.
No untoward incidents
‘It is important to note that there has not been a single serious untoward incident throughout this period.’
The spokeswoman said contractual access requirements and targets set by commissioners had been met or exceeded while ‘QOF outcomes have far superseded inherited performance’.
Contract expectations, she added, were set at higher levels than for other local practices while funding was less than half the amount previous providers received.
'Objective assessments provide clear evidence of improvements in these practices. Change is initially often difficult to deal with. However, SSP Health is committed to modernising working practices and to improving levels of performance.
‘SSP Health has made significant strides over the last 12 months and it intends to continue to implement the innovative methods required for improving services within the reducing resources in the NHS. Addressing the difficulties around GP recruitment is just one aspect and this is a well-recognised challenge in almost every part of the country.’