NHS commissioners in Sussex have finally got back some of the money owed them following the 2016 collapse of the non-emergency patient transport services contract with Coperforma, according to a report in the HSJ.

The clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Sussex are to receive a “significant” amount of money from a company called Sinocare Group Ltd, based in Hong Kong; this was one of the parent companies of Coperfoma. The full amount of the payout has not been disclosed as yet. 

The Coperforma contract in Sussex for non-emergency patient transport is perhaps one of the most high profile and disastrous failures of outsourcing in the last decade. The four-year contract worth £63.5 million was awarded to Coperforma in 2015 by seven CCGs in Sussex.

The company replaced the NHS’s South-East Coast ambulance service (SECamb) on 1 April 2016. It was then just a matter of days before problems with the contract hit the headlines. By mid-April local and national press were reporting on a service in chaos, with crews not turning up to pick up patients leading to missed appointments and patients languishing for hours in hospitals awaiting transport home. Patients included those with kidney failure with appointments for dialysis and cancer patients attending chemotherapy sessions. The GMB union representing the ambulance crews said it was an “absolute shambles”. 

Under the contract, Coperforma acted as an intermediary sub-contracting out the ambulance work to private ambulance companies. Many of the staff working for the sub-contractors had transferred from SECamb after this organisation lost the contract.  However, by August it was evident that there were issues of payment to sub-contractors and several reported financial difficulties. The sub-contractors all blamed Coperforma, saying they are owed millions in unpaid invoices by the company. 

Coperforma were finally forced to give up the contract in October 2016. Despite promising to transfer money to pay the ambulance crews, High Weald Lewes Havens CCG (now East Sussex CCG) had to step in and provide the money for the back pay. 

There followed a long legal battle between the CCGs and Coperforma and its parent companies to recover money they were owed for extra costs resulting from the collapse. 

In 2018, Coperforma went into voluntary liquidation and in 2019 HSJ reported that the company had just a few thousand pounds in its bank accounts and owed £11.3m to unsecured creditors, including NHS organisations and suppliers of ambulances and staff. 

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