Questions over Tory plans for “free market” in NHS provision

Lanlsley's call for the OFT to make decisions about NHS services undermines the ability of the NHS to plan services, were pcts forced to open up to open tender.

Agreement may be imminent between Andrew Lansley and Andy Burnham on a blueprint for elderly care funding, and David Cameron may well have pledged to “increase NHS funding”, yet, as with schools, key dividing lines remain – one of which is the Tories’ apparent desire to turn the NHS into a publicly funded free market.

At issue is the shadow health secretary’s opposition to the government’s policy that NHS organisations should be the “preferred provider” of NHS care – a stance that puts the Tories at odds with both health service unions and doctors, Unison and the British Medical Association (BMA) both backing the government’s position.

Lanlsley’s call for the Office of Fair Trading, which is meant to govern the free market, to make decisions about NHS services threatens to undermine the ability of the NHS to plan services were it to force primary care trusts to open all services up to open tender.

It also begs the following questions:

• Do the Tories want healthcare to be treated the same as supermarkets and telephone companies?

• Where does this leave Lansley’s commitment to putting power in the hands of doctors? (Since the majority of them are against commercialisation of the NHS).

On Friday, he had accused the health secretary of being “a puppet of the [health] trade unions”, adding:

“Mr Burnham is trying to constrain opportunities for the voluntary and independent sector to offer their services to NHS patients … Patients will lose out as a result. I am writing to the director-general of the Office of Fair Trading, urging him to investigate.”

Health service disquiet at the idea of private health companies tendering for NHS services came to the fore last month following the news Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon was set to become the first NHS general hospital to be operated by a private company, after the only wholly NHS bidder for the contract dropped out.

The process was described as “an unnecessary costly and dangerous experiment” by Unison, with the BMA warning the result would be that “the trust board’s responsibility will be to shareholders and not to the local population”.

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