Is the private sector always bad?

Andy Burnham has set out his vision for the NHS and at its heart is a commitment to a publicly funded and publicly managed service. The private sector would be confined to a “supporting” role while the voluntary or not for profit sector would be given preferential contractual treatment.

His vision is one in tune with core Labour values and will resonate with the public who want the NHS to remain free at the point of delivery and available to all when and where they need it.  The NHS is a national treasure and is an institution that captures the sense of fairness that can be regarded as the essence of being British.  Its heart and soul should be preserved and be invested in.  But it should not be preserved in aspic.  It must move with the times and be confident enough to embrace high quality services wherever they may be located.

I welcome Burnham’s plan for integrated care based from home and treating the whole person, and I welcome his commitment to greater homecare services for end of life care provided on the NHS.  However there are two serious flaws in his vision.  What does a “supporting” role for non NHS providers mean in practice and why should a voluntary organisaton be given preferential treatment over a private company.

The notion that voluntary or not for profit organisations are somehow deserving of preferential treatment is misguided.  There is nothing intrinsically “better” about the service arm of a major charity than many private companies or statutory sector departments.  At present charities compete ruthlessly for contracts, poach staff from within the public sector and from each other and often have no better, if not worse, terms of employment.  The service arms are rarely delivered by volunteers and many charities are replicating the characteristics of both the public and private sectors.

In my field of home medicines, it is currently only private companies that are able to deliver cost savings to the NHS through reclaiming VAT on medicines; only private companies that can meet the very high quality and governance standards needed for dispensing medicines; and only private companies that have the logistical networks to deliver medicines and services to peoples homes anywhere in the UK.

It is hard to imagine any voluntary organisation being able to provide homecare medicines to the expected standards – it is hard enough for current providers to meet the demands – or to have the financial resources to underpin a high-cost, low-margin business, or to take such a business risk without contravening their charitable objectives. The NHS shows no appetite to directly deliver the service and would be unable to take advantage of VAT generated cost savings if it tried to do so.

Clinical homecare provides high cost medicines and nursing services to people’s homes at no cost to the patient – in doing so it improves patient experience, reduces pressure on outpatient pharmacy and delivers real cash savings on expensive drugs – all of which are top priorities for the NHS.  Currently approximately 230,000 patients receive clinical homecare and while there are many pressures on services the sector is expanding and regularly generates very high levels of patient satisfaction. And it is 100% delivered by the private sector.

Clinical homecare is an example of where using the private sector makes sense – where private firms can deliver a clinical service for the NHS and in doing so improve patient care and make real cash savings.  If the NHS is to become a service where staying at home is the first option then clinical homecare providers should be encouraged to do more not less.

Private is not always bad, voluntary is not always good and an incoming Labour Secretary of State should be sophisticated enough to recognise this.

Dave Roberts

Dave is the CEO of the National Clinical Homecare Association but writes here in a personal capacity