The news that Sir Simon Stevens was standing down from his post as NHS England Chief Executive in July prompted some remarkable tributes from the Health Service Journal (HSJ), even by own standards. The editorial said that Stevens had managed to save the health service on no less than three occasions and has been the most important figure in NHS history since Aneurin Bevan. It also said that Stevens was “the greatest strategic health policy thinker of his generation”, and in this point at least the journal is accurate.
Back in May 2004 the Guardian’s John Carvel asked with regard to Stevens: “Why does a bright young man who has probably had more influence on NHS policy over the past seven years than anyone else in Britain decide to quit the public service to work for a $28bn US healthcare corporation intent on aggressive expansion into a new NHS market”? Indeed, Carvel thought that “If he had gone back into NHS management, he could have been running the whole shooting match after two or three more moves”.
At the time Steven’s move did appear odd as UnitedHealth’s – his new employer and the largest health insurer in the world – anticipated role within the NHS was thought to be marginal at best. It only ran two GP practices in Derbyshire and a case management programme for elderly people. But by 2007 Stevens’ former colleagues had given the green light to 14 companies, including United and other US insurers, to bid for potentially much bigger contracts from primary care trusts providing data analysis and research, giving PCTs a clearer idea of how to manage patients with chronic condition.
However, as the Guardian pointed out, “their role may be bigger than that. Companies may also be invited in to act as middlemen, negotiating with hospitals on the trusts’ behalf to reduce costs, ushering in the prospect that some patients may find their care plan managed not by a doctor but by an American insurance company”.
While this programme – the FESC – proved a little premature, it offers much of the key to Stevens’ strategy. Transnational capital was in the early stages of creating a global market in healthcare and adopting standardized organizational formats from which the greatest profit could be extracted. As this process was US-led, it was inevitable that its dominant and most profitable format, that of Managed Care, would be adopted as the guiding template, and Stevens’ move to Minneapolis was in part to familiarize himself more fully with the working of this system and with its leading participants.
It was also, as became evident, to locate himself as a major player within this wider market creation, and to bring English healthcare into its framework.
The focus of Stevens’ early work in the US was Managed Care’s applicability within public programmes, and in 2007 he became chief executive of Ovations, United’s division providing insurance packages for older patients, and which accounted for over 1/3 of its revenue. It also included Medicare Advantage, the private sector management of the state-funded programme for the over-sixties; a programme which had been heavily criticised for excessive administration costs, its evolution into a multibillion-dollar subsidy for private companies, as well as the insurer’s monopoly within certain states.
Indeed, the scale of profiteering within Medicare Advantage, and within the US system in general, produced considerable clamour for reform. In 2007, Stevens told the Guardian, “For all its problems, there is often an ability in the States to innovate faster and really test new models of care. This is an exciting time in health reform in the US – there’s a real sense that there will be meaningful change here in the next few years”.
But this was nonsense. Any sense of global market creation would be fatally undermined if Managed Care was to be replaced by single payer – a national system that would eradicate the need for insurers – on its home ground, and every effort was made to make sure this didn’t happen. Indeed, United, and Stevens himself, played significant roles not only in destroying single payer but ensuring that the position of the giant insurers was strengthened; in large achieved by taking greater control of Medicare, Medicaid and the new market exchanges, to the extent that within a few years these programmes had become the main artery of profits.
With the home territory secured, United, and Stevens, began to apply themselves more fully to global market formation.
In 2009 Stevens was also charged with managing United’s international operations, growth and M&A in 123 countries, including North America, Europe, and the Middle East. One of his first tasks was helping set up, in 2011, a high-level trade lobby group, the Alliance for Healthcare Competitiveness (AHC), which wanted “the Office of the US Trade Representative, acting through the World Trade Organisation, to force other nations to open up their national health systems to US for-profit insurers, hospitals, professionals, medical device makers, pharmaceutical firms, IT companies and other investor-owned firms”.
However, it makes little sense to open up national systems unless these conform to standardized templates. A year later, Stevens was helping to pursue this aim, by acting as Project Steward within the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) year-long project on Sustainable Health Systems. Co-organized with the leading US consultancy, McKinsey, workshops held in New York, Berlin, Istanbul, Tianjin, Madrid, Basel, the Hague, and London were, according to the WEF, “remarkable in their consistency of vision”, advocating new care models with delivery from “capital-light settings” using “leveraged talent models” and “low-cost channels, such as home-based models”.
In ‘Health Incorporated’, undoubtedly the WEF’s scenario of choice, the boundaries of the health industry would be redefined. “Corporations provide new products and services as markets liberalize, governments cut back on public services and a new sense of conditional solidarity emerges”. Further, “Health schemes and insurance markets boom as people seek to cover their health costs. Governments, meanwhile, focus on regulating large integrated health providers in a complex expanding global marketplace”.
The final part of the jigsaw was applying these structures within the English NHS, and Stevens’ policy formation over the following years – the Five Year Forward View, the New Care Models Programme, the Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships, and, ultimately, the 42 regional-scale Integrated Care Systems – must be seen entirely within this context. With, for example, UnitedHealth “sitting within the ICS in Somerset and acting as the engine room” of transformation, and with Centene playing the same role in Nottingham, such relationships will be pursued in as many ICSs as possible. The bulk of the English policy community is firmly behind this and as yet the process only requires legal ratification.
This is Stevens’ legacy: that of helping to create a global regime of accumulation, and situating English healthcare within that. In this, and here we must agree with the HSJ, he has proved remarkably successful. Rather than viewing Stevens as unique, however, he should instead be seen as an exemplar of a widespread phenomenon, as throughout his tenure with NHSE, for example, he continued to work with the World Economic Forum on its Executive Board of the Value in Healthcare Coalition, alongside CEO’s from Humana, Kaiser Permanente, Takeda, and several others, to further the aims of transnational capitalism. But in terms of developing and promoting the central tenets of the NHS – those of universality, equity, and indeed ‘freedom from fear’ – he is as far removed from Aneurin Bevan as you can get.
expects some form of continuity.
Stewart Player is a political analyst with over 20 years experience of working in the field of healthcare policy. Research areas covered include primary care, ISTCs, US healthcare policy, and long-term strategic developments within the NHS. Most recently working on NHS estates policy, restructuring within the private healthcare sector, and the political theory of transnational class formation.