Inquiry told how NHS chiefs were powerless to prevent GP surgery being sold on by American health giant before closure

Thursday, 7th June 2012


Camden Road Surgery was closed earlier this year after being taken over by The Practice Plc

Published: June 7, 2012

NHS officials have admitted they were unable to stop an American health giant from suddenly selling a Camden GP surgery to another private firm – and are seeking legal advice to stop it happening again.

North Central London (NCL) NHS trust associate director Tony Hoolaghan, speaking at an inquiry into the closure of Camden Road Surgery on Thursday, revealed how the trust had lost control of the GP practice.

He said he had sought legal advice after United Health sold shares in three Camden surgeries to The Practice Plc in April 2011. The financial transfer shocked patients who were not informed about the deal until after it was done. Health bosses had not vetted or approved the new operator.

A year later, Camden Road Surgery closed, triggering a public inquiry at the Town Hall.

Speaking to the inquiry panel on Thursday, Mr Hoolaghan said: “We took legal advice at the time and we were informed that what had happened was legal. We couldn’t prevent it from happening. There was no change to what the new deliverer had to do – no change in the performance monitoring." 

He added: “We are seeking legal protection for next time.”

Camden’s original alternative provider of medical service (APMS) contract with UnitedHealth for the running of Camden Road, King’s Cross and Brunswick practices expires in March 2013. Mr Hoolaghan said NCL would launch a tender for the two remaining surgeries, allaying creeping fears that they are also facing closure.

Lib Dem councillor Paul Braithwaite said: “We have identified a flaw in the contract”, adding that the closure had created a “large hole” in GP cover for Camden Town and Cantelowes.

NCL chief executive Caroline Taylor told the panel: “We are talking to our solicitors about it,” adding: “There is nothing to suggest that private providers are worse in any way for patients.”

This was not the opinion of Caversham Practice partner Dr Steve Amiel who, in written evidence submitted to the panel, said: “We are hearing anecdotal evidence from Camden Road patients of the fragmented care they received during the tenure of UnitedHealth and The Practice. Equally anecdotally, clinicians at our practice are concerned in some cases that there appeared to be little continuity of care at Camden Road and this might have impacted on clinical decision-making. The Caversham is on record as opposing the takeover of three practices by private providers, whose prime duty of care was to their shareholders, rather than patients. We feared exactly the outcome for Camden Road patients that has sadly come about.”

Dr Amiel, in his evidence, said: “We found out about the closure from the Camden New Journal. I gather other practices have said the same thing.”

Since the closure, his Kentish Town practice had seen “considerable pressure on both clinical and non-clinical staff, on waiting times to get an appointment and patient satisfaction”.

In further written evidence, Jagdish Vaghela, who has run Biotech Pharmacy in Camden Road for more than 30 years, said: “We feel that patients have been compromised. There was and still is a genuine need for a surgery in place of or in the vicinity of the previous Camden Road Surgery… The problems that came about had a strong link to the privatisation of the practice.”

But NCL’s Ms Taylor said she was “personally comfortable” with the closure and the way patients had been allocated. She added that 2,746 patients had been re-registered, 417 had moved away and 1,500 were still at large, the majority of them aged 16 to 30.

Inquiry chairwoman, Labour councillor Angela Mason, was applauded from the public gallery when she told NCL: “The nub of this is the very sudden closure of the surgery. I think it was badly done and you didn’t give enough time for the process – and we cannot understand why.”

The panel will file a report to the council’s health scrutiny committee later this month.

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