Multinational firms have got their eyes on your local doctor’s surgery.
The companies that have plundered health service budgets, forcing the NHS to buy their private services, now want to extend their reach.
After the government invited the private sector to provide GPs, some of the biggest names in US health insurance are being joined by other multi-nationals, like the Virgin group, in an attempt to muscle in get contracts.
GPs from across Tower Hamlets, in east London, were joined by patients in a 150-strong protest on Thursday of last week against a decision by the local primary care trust (PCT) to hand the St Paul’s Way medical centre to Atos Healthcare.
Atos Healthcare is a subsidiary of a French-based computer firm with only a limited experience of healthcare, much of which has been gained helping institutions “manage absenteeism”.
It is now planning to buy-up as many surgeries as it can muster.
In the past, when a GP retired or moved on, doctors from the surrounding area would be invited to manage the vacant practice because it was assumed they had local knowledge and expertise.
In the case of St Paul’s Way, however, the PCT rejected bids from two successful local practices because a private firm had undercut them.
Dr Rahim, who is from Chrisp Street health centre, which bid to run the surgery, is angry at the tendering process.
“They say that Atos won the bid because it was so cheap,” he told Socialist Worker.
“But the only way Atos’s bid could be so low is that it has underestimated the amount of resources it takes to provide good healthcare in an area as poor as Tower Hamlets.
“Now I worry about the quality of care that the 11,000 patients at this surgery will receive.”
Shamsuz Zaman, who joined the protest, agrees. He has been a patient at St Paul’s Way for the past 15 years.
He told Socialist Worker that the level of service at the surgery plummeted about a year ago after the previous doctor left and the PCT took over the running of the surgery directly.
“We’ve had a year when it has been almost impossible to make an appointment, and even when you could, you rarely saw the same doctor twice,” he said.
“There has been almost no consultation with the patients about the sell-off, and many of us think that things will get even worse when the surgery is run by a private company.”
Following the announcement of Atos’s victory, Tower Hamlets GP Forum last week overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in the PCT.
“We are all extremely angry about what has happened here,” said Dr Rahim.
“But we know that this is a government policy, and the same thing is happening elsewhere in the country.”
It was announced last week that three surgeries in Camden, north London, are to be transferred to United Healthcare – the largest profit making health insurance company in the US.
It is believed that United Healthcare undercut all rival bids by charging £70 per patient, rather than the £100 budgeted in proposals from local doctors.
Dr Stephen Graham, told the Camden New Journal newspaper that a bid from his surgery had been rejected.
“We offered the benefits of a smaller practice, where people get to know their GPs and we know the areas’ needs,” he said.
“But now cost-cutting has won hands down over quality of service provision.”
Many local NHS campaigners believe that United Healthcare put in a bid it knew it could make little profit from as a “loss leader” hoping that this will “open up the market” to private providers.
A former boss of United Healthcare, Chan Wheeler, is now the commercial director of the department of health.
While health workers have been told to tighten their belts, Wheeler is set to receive £320,000 this year in order to push an agenda of privatisation in the NHS.
United Healthcare, which has been convicted of fraud in a variety of cases, is strongly linked to the US Republican Party.
With so much money to be made, it is no wonder that firms are queuing up for their share.
Richard Branson’s Virgin group is set to launch a bid to run health centres with a host of private “extras” to be pushed on patients.
Dr Anna Livingstone, who helped organise the protest in Tower Hamlets, told Socialist Worker that anger at the private sector vultures circling the NHS is leading to the possibility of demonstrations across Britain.
“Doctors are angry because we are working harder than ever to try and provide a good public service to people who desperately need it,” she said.
“Patients are angry because they see public money being used to line the pockets of multinationals, while the NHS is starved of resources.
“People don’t want their doctors’ surgeries to become like supermarkets.”