GPonline reported earlier this year that Operose Health - a subsidiary of US healthcare giant the Centene Corporation - now holds around 1% of GP practice contracts in England, making it the country's largest provider of NHS primary care with around half a million patients.
Operose Health expanded its portfolio of NHS GP practices to 58 through a 'partnership' with major primary care provider AT Medics earlier this year.
The 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'.
Leading a protest outside the London headquarters of Operose on 22 April, east London GP and Doctors in Unite chair Dr Jackie Applebee said a 'huge swathe' of English general practice had been handed over to a US-backed company - and called for greater 'transparency and openness'.
'This is disingenuous and [the government] know it,' said Dr Applebee. 'There is a world of difference between a multinational corporation that operates to make a profit and local GPs who are very much part of the NHS "family" and provide services from a budget fixed by the Treasury.
'The public needs to wake-up to the fact the NHS that they so value and which has been the lynchpin of the successful COVID-19 vaccination programme is being steadily sold off.
'This is another prime example of the accelerating privatisation of the NHS by stealth. Now is a time to draw a line in the sand to preserve and cherish the NHS as an organisation free at the point of delivery to all those in need. If we are not vigilant, these founding principles of the NHS in 1948 will become pale shadows of themselves.'
Protesters were joined by Poplar and Limehouse MP Apsana Begum and Islington North MP and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Ms Begum told the protest that outsourcing to the private sector must be ended.
An Operose Health spokesperson said: 'Operose Health shares NHS values, provides NHS services and cares for NHS patients. Like other NHS providers, our care is free at the point of delivery, regulated and inspected by the CQC.
'We focus on delivering personal, professional patient care, of the highest quality, to the populations we serve. We are committed to widening public access to excellent patient care, especially in the most deprived communities, experiencing the most profound health inequalities.'
The Labour party called earlier this year for the government to halt the 'stealth privatisation' of NHS GP practices.