4 things you should know about new NHS England chief Simon Stevens

The new head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, only started his job yesterday, but he is already facing criticism from unions over comments made by him about the role of private healthcare companies in the NHS.

In a speech delivered to 300 healthcare professionals in Newcastle yesterday, Stevens praised “the innovation value of new providers” in the provision of health services. Both Unite and Unison have criticised the speech.

But there are some additional things that you should know about Simon Stevens, things which arouse more suspicion about what he might be planning to do to the NHS.

1. He was previously the head of US healthcare firm UnitedHealth

Stevens’ previous job was as president of American healthcare company UnitedHealth, the largest health insurance company in the US.

This brings to mind the ‘revolving door‘ between the civil service and big business, whereby top officials move between jobs in the public and private sectors, leading to accusations of conflicts of interest.

UnitedHealth have previously been involved in the NHS, running six GP practices in England. They transferred these to another company in 2011, but said that they were doing this in order to concentrate on their commissioning support business, which also involves the NHS. The firm’s UK chief said at the time that “We’ve always said that we want to be a long-term player in the NHS. That hasn’t changed.”

Stevens’ s appointment will be viewed by some as an attempt by the government to prepare the NHS for privatisation, and for the introduction of a US-style healthcare system.

2. He advised New Labour on how to get the private sector more involved in the NHS

From 1997 to 2001, Stevens was an adviser to the first two New Labour health secretaries, Frank Dobson and Alan Milburn, and from 2001 to 2004 he worked with Tony Blair in 10 Downing Street.

With Milburn, Stevens co-authored the 2000 NHS Plan, which strongly supported the idea of more private sector involvement in the NHS. The Plan’s policies included a greater role for competition in the NHS, getting private companies to provide some services, and expanding the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to fund the construction of new hospitals.

Of these policies, PFI has been particularly disastrous, with the high cost of PFI debt payments (which go to private investors) playing a significant role in forcing hospitals to cut services.

3. He supported Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms

When former health secretary Andrew Lansley set out his controversial health reforms in 2010, Stevens was outspoken in praising them.

When Lansley was replaced as health secretary by Jeremy Hunt, Unite’s head of health Rachael Maskell described Lansley’s policies as “deeply unpopular bungled reforms which heralded rising waiting lists, £20 billion cuts to services, job losses to thousands of nurses and other health workers, installed an expensive, needless bureaucracy and announced an open sesame to the private firms which put profit before patient care”.

Yesterday the British Medical Association (BMA) called for the Health and Social Care Act to be repealed. BMA chairman Dr Mark Porter claimed that the Act has increased bureaucracy and “needlessly shook up the fabric the NHS”. Dr Porter also said that the damage done to the NHS by the Act has been “profound and intense”.

4. He wants Michael Gove’s free school policy applied to the NHS

Denis Campbell, the Guardian’s health correspondent, claims in this article that Stevens “believes that competition between hospitals drives up standards. He has also suggested that the NHS could get its own equivalent of Michael Gove’s free schools in the shape of independent GPs who would compete with existing surgeries for patients.

Gove’s free school programme has been unravelling in recent months, with news of religious extremists taking advantage of the policy to open schools which teach their beliefs (including creationism), and some free schools being ordered to close due to substandard teaching. Even Gove himself has admitted that “things have gone wrong“.

Given that the free schools policy is turning out to be a fiasco, is it really such a good idea to introduce it in other parts of the public sector, let alone in the NHS?

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