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Private firms approached to run NHS unit

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The NHS Commissioning Board has approached several private companies about the possibility of them running a commissioning support unit, LGC’s sister title Health Service Journal has learned.

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The board’s business development unit is attempting to find a long-term solution for the Norfolk and Waveney CSU, which still does not have a permanent managing director.

HSJ understands the commissioning board has approached Ernst & Young, Capita, Serco, Circle, Atos, KMPG, PWC and McKinsey about taking over the running of the CSU. Current boss Robert Garner is in post on an interim basis and is due to leave at the end of March.

Commissioning support units have been set up to carry out a wide range of support tasks for clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) from April under the government’s reforms, and are expected to play a key role in designing health services. The Department of Health has anticipated since it first outlined plans for the new units that they would in the long term be spun out of the NHS and run by private or third sector groups.

A final decision has not been taken, but options under consideration include bringing in a private firm just to fill the chief executive post, or to form the entire top team.

Bringing in the private sector to run the CSU would be considered a potential test of the market for non-NHS commissioning support providers, and an opportunity to make the sector more diverse.

Derek Felton, executive director at Ernst and Young, told HSJ: “When such opportunities arise, we are naturally very cautious.

“We would need to be confident that any partnership was supported by customers and CSU staff, and we would want to ensure there was the basis for introducing modern and innovative clinical commissioning techniques.

“We would of course need to be confident that the combination of talent in customers, the CSU and our own teams could jointly achieve success for all.”

Another senior source in commissioning support told HSJ a better solution would be to approach other NHS CSUs to take over Norfolk and Waveney.

However, Norfolk’s geographical isolation has also been noted – its sole direct neighbour is the Greater East Midlands CSU, which potentially favours an independent sector franchise.

One senior commissioning support sector source said any comparison with the franchise of Hinchingbrooke Health Care Trust, run by Circle, was not helpful, because of the significant difference between commissioning support and acute hospitals.

Checkpoint four of the NHS Commissioning Board’s assurance process, which focuses on finance, is currently underway, and is scheduled to finish in April. It is widely expected that the board will intervene where CSUs are found to be weak.

A spokeswoman for the NHS Commissioning Board told HSJ discussions had taken place in relation to Norfolk and Waveney with a “very wide range of local, regional and national organisations and stakeholders”.

She said “secondment arrangements from within the NHS” were also under consideration.

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