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Local councils’ award of health contracts to private providers must be scrutinised

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Local councils’ award of health contracts to private providers must be scrutinised

Two questions have caused a journalistic itch that I cannot scratch. Why did Newcastle City Council award a contract for a sexual health service to two private companies and did any pharmacies, who are better placed to provide it, register an interest?

The Council failed to give a sufficiently detailed answer when I contacted them via a freedom of information request last month. If you don’t know, it awarded the contract for clinical services to Solutions 4 Health and online services to Preventx in July.

The service, which includes contraception support, pregnancy testing and sexually transmitted disease detection, had been provided on the NHS since January 2017. A pharmacy could do all these things but the private providers will roll the service out from October 1.  

I posed the question because, apart from a lack of detail around the tender process (how many bids the Council received, how long the procurement process lasted, how much Solutions 4 Health and Preventx paid for the contract and whether pharmacies lodged bids), there’s concern about the impact the decision could have on public health.

Will fewer people be able to access the service once it’s privately provided? Will the public’s experience of the service be diminished? Unison’s head of health Ian Fleming alluded to as much when he told the BBC “research shows direct public service provision improves quality for people using services.”

The Council said it engaged with the public before opening the bidding but it didn’t answer our other questions, citing commercial sensitivity. So, we asked it for an internal review of their unsatisfactory response. A call to the Information Commissioner’s Office may well follow.

The awarding of contracts by local councils should always be scrutinised. I also discovered Sandwell Council handed Randox, a private company that’s had links to the Conservatives, a contract worth over £500,000 to provide healthcare checks.

The service gives 40 to 74-year-olds free tests for diabetes, heart and kidney disease and hypertension. A pharmacy could do all of this too.

Sandwell Council said the money will be paid depending on results but did it conduct a fair and open tender? We will try and find out.

 

 

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