Campaigners to protest at GP surgeries as outrage grows over US takeover

Keep Our NHS Public campaigner Carol Ackroyd outside Trowbridge Surgery last month. Photograph: KONP

Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) campaigners are to stage protests outside GP surgeries across north-east London this week amid building anger over their privatisation.

It was revealed in February that the ownership of a number of the capital’s GP practices, including Trowbridge Surgery in Hackney, had been transferred to US health insurance giant Centene through its subsidiary, Operose.

The move blindsided council leaders, with Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and the administrations of 15 other boroughs challenging health secretary Matt Hancock over “its implications for a possible wider privatisation of the NHS”.

KONP’s socially distanced protest this Thursday will demand the transfers are overturned, as well as the abolition of the Alternative Provider (APMS) contract that enabled the move.

A spokesperson for the group said:  “Trowbridge GP surgery, like all the other health services now privatised and run by companies for profit, still displays the NHS logo. 

“We don’t want the NHS logo to be used to cover up transfers to US corporates. We don’t want our NHS to be parcelled up and sold off under the radar. 

“We don’t want dubious APMS contracts to be used for transfers to corporates such as this one. We don’t want our health services privatised and used to make profits.”

KONP says the government is introducing a “major reorganisation under cover of Covid which will hugely increase opportunities for privatisation” through the roll-out of Integrated Care Systems (ICS), which will replace clinical commissioning groups (CCG) with larger structures that cover a wider area.

In a March letter to Hancock, also signed by Camden council leader Cllr Georgia Gould and Islington counterpart Cllr Richard Watts, Mayor Glanville noted that the transfer of control from AT Medics, which runs the surgeries in question, to Operose/Centene had happened with “alarming speed, with little public scrutiny or patient consultation, and little or no involvement of council partners or local patient groups”.

Addressing North London councillors last month, Frances O’Callaghan, accountable officer for North Central London CCG, acknowledged that health leaders ought to have “picked up the phone to an elected member” to make councils aware of the change, but stressed there was “no attempt” to keep the information hidden.

The CCG has also argued that there are “checks and balances” that mean the APMS contract system operates safely, characterising the change of control as “one private company has been taken over by another private company”.

Health bureaucrats, in response to the widespread backlash, have made clear that there is no legal or contractual basis on which to refuse consent to the change of control.

In the joint letter to Hancock, Glanville said: “Ultimately, responsibility must fall with central government for its longstanding failure to protect the NHS from private companies intent on buying up our health services.

“Despite assurances that the service offered by GPs at these practices will not change, already there are troubling signs. Recent news that the board of AT Medics has been entirely replaced by employees of Centene suggests that changes are in fact well underway. 

“As a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, Centene Corporation is ultimately answerable to its shareholders, who will expect it to maximise profits. For GPs, this will likely lead to further competition for patients between surgeries – which is neither desirable nor an effective use of precious healthcare resources.”

The letter goes on: “This is particular concerning given the clear evidence on the poor outcomes and high costs of the US health care system compared to the Britain’s publicly owned NHS.”

Centene was approached for comment, but had not responded by time of going to press. 

In a statement provided to the Citizen last month, a spokesperson for AT Medics and Operose said: “We have followed all the required regulatory procedures, including obtaining consent from our CCGs. As a provider of NHS services, care remains free at the point of delivery. In addition, and as with all other GP services throughout the country, we will continue to be regulated and inspected by the CQC. Our focus has been and will remain ensuring we provide high quality care for the populations we serve.”

You can find KONP’s petition against the move here