John Lister comments –

Claims by Matt Hancock, Simon Stevens and other senior figures from NHS England that the private hospital sector should be regarded as a permanent “partner” of the NHS after the block booking of private beds this year have been exposed as deluded.

Far from seeing their role as complementing the NHS, and delivering care for NHS patients at cost, it’s clear that private hospitals’ first and only priority is profit – even if it means turning their backs on NHS cancer patients whose treatment is held up by the second wave of Covid-19.

An exclusive article in the Health Service Journal has revealed that US-owned HCA, The London Clinic and the Cromwell Hospital have pulled out of any renewed contracts to treat NHS patients – because the fees on offer were not high enough. The private hospitals were unwilling to return to rules under the first block-booking of beds that ensured low-priority private patients were not treated ahead of NHS patients – including cancer patients – who needed surgery urgently.

In a recent Healthcare Markets magazine interview, HCA UK chief executive John Reay indicated that while the company was keen to “continue partnering with the NHS,” its priority was restarting activity for its core private patient base, where demand was again increasing.

“Reay believes the number of patients requiring treatment, particularly for cancer and cardiac care, means HCA’s hospitals will be ‘full and busy’.”

The private hospital sector was bailed out of a financial hole by NHS England in the spring as their regular business collapsed: the NHS block-booking effectively paid for use and covered all of the overhead costs of up to 8,000 private beds – although only a fraction of this number was ever actually used.

By June, as Treasury officials apparently blocked NHS England proposals for an extravagant £5 billion contract for use of private beds through to April 2021, consultants in the private sector were telling the media that the hospitals have been empty and doctors have been “twiddling their thumbs”.

In July the Federation of Independent Practitioner Organisations was complaining that “Medical insurance risks becoming worthless because of the difficulties policyholders face getting treatment since the NHS took over the running of private hospitals.”

Now, according to the Financial Times, private firms are looking forward to a “coronavirus bounce” combining increased NHS contracts and self-pay patients.  A new fixed-term three-month contract will guarantee work volumes for 14 private hospital providers until March.

From March more than 90 private providers, including the two biggest, Spire and privately owned Circle, have signed up to a 4-year £10bn framework deal with NHS England, which aims to clear a huge backlog of procedures postponed because of the pandemic … while thousands of NHS beds stand empty. A rather one-sided ‘partnership’.

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