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Peer won’t give up battle over US company’s GP surgeries grab

Baroness Bakewell warns: 'You either believe in the public good and that the NHS is at the centre of that public good, or you believe in capitalism'

16 April, 2021 — By Tom Foot

Baroness Joan Bakewell

JOAN Bakewell has swung behind a “growing campaign” against the US health insurance giant’s takeover of GP surgeries ahead of a protest next week, saying “it’s never too late to put a wrong right”.

The broadcaster and peer is one of 156 patients in Camden this week to sign a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens and Jo Sauvage, chief executive of North Central London Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG), which rubber-stamped the “change in control” without public debate earlier this year.

The New Journal revealed in January how the Centene Corporation had through its UK arm, Operose Health, taken over dozens of surgeries across the country, including four in Camden – the first time most patients were even aware of the switch.

Baroness Bakewell, who lives in Primrose Hill, told the New Journal: “There is a campaign growing to stop companies like Centene taking over more contracts for surgeries and making larger inroads into the NHS.

“Some people have said to me it’s too late to change what has happened, but I don’t believe in giving up. It is never too late to put a wrong right.

“You either believe in the public good and that the NHS is at the centre of that public good, or you believe in capitalism. I do believe the NHS should belong to us. It has done us proud during the pandemic.

“We won’t be better off if it is offered out to profit-making institutions. “It will become the same as you see with private companies running care homes to the elderly, for profit to their shareholders.”

Baroness Bakewell said the NHS had faults, but she added: “More privatisation is not the way to solve the problems in the NHS. We have got to recruit more staff.

“One of the main reasons the pandemic took such a hold was that the NHS was so under-resourced. We had to go out and build hospitals.”

The Centene takeover affects the Somers Town Medical Centre, King’s Cross Surgery, Brunswick Medical Centre, the Community Health Improvement Partnership (CHIP) for homeless patients, and also a series of GP hubs providing an extended opening hours service across the borough.

Operose Health’s chief executive Samantha Jones later quit to take up a new role as prime minister Boris Johnson’s senior health chief adviser, with the company saying on her departure “there is no one better qualified to help shape health policy”.

The joint letter – sent out on Monday – has also been signed by the Town Hall’s health chief Cllr Pat Callaghan and several doctors and medical experts.

It said the change of control from AT Medics, the previous operator, to Operose Health was “secretive and opaque” adding there would be “significant ramifications” for patient care at a time when the “overwhelming majority of the British public do not want to see further commercialisation of our NHS”.

It added: “Surely it cannot be right that change of control over GP services across London can take place under the noses of communities and their representatives without their being aware of what is happening?”

Protests outside a GP surgery in neighbouring Islington also part of the takeover

Campaigners have warned a health bill, upcoming in the House of Lords, could lead to companies like Centene – which became the largest provider of primary care services in the country due to the surgery transfers – having representatives on NHS funding decision-making boards.

Baroness Bakewell said she had also raised the takeover with Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth, who in February put questions about the process to Mr Hancock in the House of Commons and said the deal should be halted.

Health commissioners at North Central London had previously said their hands were tied by legislation surrounding Alternative Provider Medical Service (APMS) contracts, meaning it was impossible to reject AT Medics application for the “change on control”.

A spokesperson for Operose Health 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 Care Quality Commission.

“Our focus has been and will remain ensuring we provide high quality care for the populations we serve.”

Campaigners are planning a protest outside Operose’s offices in Fitzrovia on April 22.


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