ONE of the UK’s biggest GP practice operators has been taken over by the US health insurance group Centene Corporation.
This has been condemned by many NHS GPs as the ‘privatisation of the NHS by stealth’, prompting calls for an official investigation into what campaigners claim.
The merger will create the largest private supplier of GP services in the UK, with 58 practices covering half a million patients.
A coalition of doctors, campaigners and academics has voiced concerns in a letter sent this week to the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
The letter to Hancock said: ‘Whilst we imagine you will not be sympathetic to those of us who consider that US health insurers have no place in the provision of NHS services, we ask you to consider carefully the reasons for our request.
‘Most of the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) have published nothing about this significant change, and held no meetings in public … This matter is an example of the privatisation of the NHS by stealth to which we have consistently drawn attention, and which you have, equally consistently, dismissed.’
Operose Health, a UK subsidiary of Centene, has recently taken over the privately owned AT Medics, which was set up in 2004 by six NHS GPs and runs 37 GP practices across 49 sites in London. Operose already operates 21 GP surgeries in England.
Objectors are concerned because they claim the change of control was approved for eight practices in the London boroughs of Camden, Islington and Haringey in a virtual meeting on 17 December that lasted less than nine minutes, during which no mention was made of Centene and not a single question was asked.
The approval was granted by the North Central London Clinical Commissioning Group (NCL CCG), a local NHS body that purchases health services from GPs, hospitals and others using taxpayer funds.
The campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, Doctors in Unite, Allyson Pollock, a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, and others have written to Josephine Sauvage, the chair of NCL CCG, urging her to block the change of control at AT Medics, which has made £35m in profits over the last five years.
During the meeting on 17 December, AT Medics indicated there would be ‘no change to the board of directors’, according to the draft minutes of the event, which were approved last week.
However, despite this pledge, the change of control was effected when all six AT Medics directors resigned on 10 February, and three new directors were appointed, all of them also directors of Operose.
The latter include Prof Nick Harding, who is Operose’s chief medical officer and a practising GP, and Samantha Jones, Operose’s chief executive and a former head of West Hertfordshire hospitals NHS trust.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the NHS had always involved a mixture of public and private provision, and it was not for sale to the private sector.