Hackney GPs on tenderhooks over out-of-hours bid bombshell

GPs in Hackney are on tender hooks today, waiting to hear if their bid to run the borough’s out-of-hours service will go unchallenged.

All doctors in the borough have signed up to participate in the Hackney Urgent Healthcare Social Enterprise, which would take back the running of urgent and out of hours care from the private healthcare company Harmoni.

GPs have spent two years negotiating the plans with NHS North East London and the City, and the service was due to launch on April 2 – the day GPs take responsibility nationally for commissioning most patients’ services through clinical commissioning consortiums (CCGs), as part of the changes introduced by last year’s controversial Health and Social Care Act.

The GP-led proposal has the full backing of Hackney patients, who have expressed a desire to be seen by doctors they know and trust.

But a bombshell was dropped at a Health in Hackney scrutiny commission council meeting on January 16, when NHS representative announced the service would be put out to tender when the contract with Harmoni ends on March 31.

Hoxton GP Adam Forman, Chairman of the British Medical Association in Hackney, said doctors are fighting this decision because the “textbook bid” had been put together with the maximum consultation between local GPs and the PCT and was the CCG’s preferred option.

“The Hackney out of hours plan is good, not just because Harmoni is bad - which it is - but the bid is robust,” he said.

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“The only reason it can be rejected at the last minute is because private providers are complaining they did not get a look in or the PCT are terrified they are not following government procedure for nudging everything towards private providers.”

Harmoni’s north London out-of-hours service was heavily criticised by doctors in December, who alleged the company’s cost-cutting has caused staff retention problems, shortages in clinical staff, and unsafe working practices. They also claimed that the company had manipulated its performance data, masked delays in seeing patients, and cut the length of appointments.

Harmoni refuted the criticisms however, and denied the service is unsafe.

In a letter to Ms Alwen Williams Chief Executive Officer of NHS North East London and the City, Cllr Luke Akehurst chairman of the Health in Hackney scrutiny commission expressed concern about the delay in appointing a new provider.

“We would urge NELC to expedite this matter as the provision of an efficient out of hours service is vital to residents, because without it there will continue to be an increasing strain on local A and E services,” he said.

Campaign group, Hackney Coalition to Save the NHS held a public meeting in October, at which a “community pledge” to oppose to the running of local health services by private healthcare companies was voted for unanimously.

A final decision on whether to put the bid out to tender was due to be made yesterday at an NHS board meeting.

A spokesman for NHS North East London and the City said: “We want to ensure local people receive an out-of-hours service that is safe and of the highest quality.

“Any decision will be taken in the light of expert advice on primary care commissioning, legal and financial matters.

“If this option is agreed by the board then local GPs would be able to put forward a proposal for them to run the service, which would be fully considered.”