Corporate Takeover of NHS: The Demise of British Primary Care

First, they came for the cleaners, then the caters, then the porters, then the student nurses, then the junior doctors. Now they’re coming for the GPs. Is it too late for an effective push back? asks Bob Gill.

April 28, 2018: Protest against the closure of the minor injuries unit at Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, England. (Tim Dennell, CC BY-NC 2.0)

By Bob Gill
in London

Special to Consortium News

Britain’s primary care system has been the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS). Current spending on primary care is less than a 10th of the total cost of the NHS yet accounts for 90 percent of all patient contacts with the service.

The U.K. healthcare’s overall ranking remains high compared to similar economies and public satisfaction had improved in 2019 with outpourings of support during the height of the pandemic.

Politicians and the media joined in the acts of appreciation which for the majority was cynical opportunism to portray themselves as supporters of a system they have been actively undermining for years in preparation for American corporate takeover.

Social Revolution

By the inception of the NHS in 1948 general practitioners (family physicians) had been persuaded to join this revolutionary social advance, with the promise of secure funding based on their registered patient lists. GPs would become independent contractors within a heavily regulated system that paid them for caring for their registered patients, trained new doctors, provided access to community and hospital services for their patients and provided them a state-funded pension on retirement.

The system was the first in the world to provide universal, comprehensive, tax-funded care, free at the point of use and facilitated the more even distribution of medical resource previously concentrated in the affluent areas. The NHS, a central pillar of the post-war welfare state, helped deliver the greatest improvement in quality of life for working people.

With the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979 and her government’s free-market ideology which saw the privatization of public utilities and natural resources, it was only a matter of time before public services would receive the neoliberal treatment. Out of necessity NHS privatization had to be heavily disguised and incremental to avoid political suicide.

Rolling Back Beveridge

William Beveridge in 1943. (Imperial War Museums, Wikimedia Commons)

The 1942 Beveridge Report set out a proposal for the Welfare State which the post-war Labour government set about implementing. The NHS was to provide the nation with universal and comprehensive medical, dental and eye care funded through general taxation.

Prior to the Thatcher-era market reforms, the administration costs were less than 4 percent of the total NHS budget with the remainder spent on staff, buildings and medicines.

As a result, healthcare was extremely cost-effective, delivering great improvements in life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality. With GPs in every community, preventative health programs and continuity of care contributed to further health and cost gains.

In 1990 the internal market was introduced splitting the NHS into GPs as purchasers and hospital as providers of care. The bogus neoliberal rhetoric of improving efficiency ushered in the commercial personnel, methods and language while perversely driving up administrative costs by an additional 10 percent, raising it to 14 percent, by 2006 estimates.

Some GPs grabbed financial opportunities to adopt market reforms such as becoming fundholders with most generous rewards to early adopters, creating winner and loser practices. So began the divide-and-rule tactics and behavioral conditioning using financial incentives and administrative penalties to reconfigure primary care.

Entrepreneurial GPs dragged the profession along the commercialization road taking a leap forward with the 2004 GP contract which created a two-tier GP status of partners and salaried doctors, out of hours care responsibility was removed and opened up to commercial providers. For the first time private companies could prise open primary care funding, winning contracts which until then had been a state funded-monopoly with doctors providing the services.

Doctors’ incomes — previously contractually bound to actual patient contact — were decoupled so that clinical work could be delegated to cheaper salaried doctor substitutes. Many boosted incomes further by providing clinical window dressing for more commercialisation and marketisation.

A greater proportion of GP income also became conditional on performance targets thus introducing another control mechanism to shape GP behaviour by incentivising particular patient care activity but also non-clinical and administrative work to deliver system and ethos change not improve patient care.

The Health and Care Act 2012 created new geographically based organizational bodies called Clinical Commissioning Groups formed of GP practices with GPs on the boards. They were modeled along the lines of private insurance systems and empowered to reconfigure hospital services including outsourcing of profitable elective care, rubber-stamping hospital emergency department closures and bed cuts.

GPs had effectively been co-opted into destroying the Beveridge model of healthcare.

Consensus & Cover-Up

Margaret Thatcher in Brighton, England, Oct. 12, 1984. (Levan Ramishvili via Flickr)

Margaret Thatcher in Brighton, England, Oct. 12, 1984. (Levan Ramishvili via Flickr)

Cross-party political consensus has been essential for the privatization of the NHS to succeed. When asked about her greatest achievement, Margaret Thatcher famously answered,  “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

In power from 1997 to 2010 New Labour perhaps achieved more to accelerate this agenda, shielded by the reputation of being the party that created the NHS.

Private Finance Initiative schemes were used by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government to fund the building of new hospitals. The NHS was saddled with £11 billion of private debt which would cost £88 billion in public repayments.

Private Finance Initiatives destabilized hospital finances, creating a funding problem for which the solution was more contraction of bed capacity rubber stamped by the Clinical Commissioning Groups.

At the end of the loan repayments, ownership of the assets remained with the private investors. Just imagine buying a house with an extortionate mortgage and not owning the house when the mortgage was paid off. That’s the scam of Private Finance Initiatives.

Profitable elective surgical treatments were outsourced for the first time since the founding of the NHS. Major GP contract changes and privatisation of out of hours primary care provision preceded the co-option of the health unions with the Social Partnership Forum agreement in 2006 effectively neutralising their opposition to privatisation in all but rhetoric.

Corporate media silence on the decades long assault on the NHS is quite remarkable. Reporting on the NHS simply echo press releases, politicians escape proper scrutiny and policy is not adequately challenged.

System failure due to lack of resources or fragmentation as a direct result of health policy is seldom highlighted but instead used to undermine faith in the NHS model. Dissenting voices are rarely granted a platform on mass media, which actively manipulates audiences with praise for our beloved institution whilst covering up its demise. 

Manufactured Ignorance

The British Medical Association (BMA) deserves perhaps the greatest condemnation among health unions and professional bodies. A membership organisation and a union which is funded to defend the interests of doctors has actively colluded against their interests and the interest of patients by providing cover for the market reforms. Successive legislation has not been actively resisted and the profession marinated in a manufactured ignorance to the implication and ultimate goals of the reforms.

The British Medical Association endorsed the 2004 GP contract, which in the short term was a welcome boost in income but effectively bought off the principle of public NHS provision of tax-funded primary care and created a second class of GP.

British Medical Association headquarters in London. (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Jim Osley)

In 2006, the British Medical Association signed up to the Social Partnership Forum agreement covertly aligning with the market reform agenda, and failed to oppose the 2012 Health and Care Act, which removed the secretary of state for health’s statutory “duty to provide” healthcare effectively, abolishing a founding principle of the NHS.

In 2016, the union sabotaged its own potentially game-changing junior doctors’ industrial action, destroyed the momentum of the dispute and squandered overwhelming public support, ultimately delivering consent for the originally imposed contract that significantly worsened pay and conditions for doctors. Helping deliver a cheaper workforce with fewer protections ahead of future transfer to private corporate operators has contributed to the recruitment and retention crisis in primary care and NHS as a whole.

In February 2021 the British Medical Association endorsed the health and care white paper which preceded the health care bill currently before parliament. The bill will complete the NHS transition to an American-style healthcare systems.

Shock Doctrine

The 2008 financial crash unleashed yet more economic fundamentalism in Britain, doubling down on Thatcherite policies that led to the crash and spiralling wealth inequality. By the eve of the coronavirus pandemic the NHS had endured a decade of defunding and contraction.

From 2014 to 2021 the stewardship of the NHS was in the hands of Simon Stevens, ex-president of American private insurance giant UnitedHealth’s global expansion division, who had set out two years earlier his former employer’s solution for developed countries healthcare systems at the World Economic Forum.

Lord Simon Stevens (Roger Harris/UK Parliament)

His prescription was to replicate America’s private insurance industry dominated “managed care” model. Stevens, as chief executive of NHS England, had engineered the dire state of the NHS leading up to the pandemic.

The government’s pandemic response was to squander billions of pounds on private companies with no experience in healthcare and often without due probity. It has been one of the most expensive, most privatized and least effective public-funded health programs in the world.

GPs were effectively excluded from participation in the early phase of response, unlike in other countries, replaced by the outsourced telephone triage system NHS111. Access to doctors was limited by government instruction leading to significant unmet need, delayed treatment and diagnosis and damage to trust in primary care services.

The right-wing press scapegoated GPs, blaming them for growing patient dissatisfaction and diverting attention from the government catastrophic performance capped with the forced discharge from hospitals of infected patients into nursing homes leading to over 20,000 preventable deaths.

A year into the pandemic with the profession exhausted and demoralise, the government took the opportunity to publish the legislative plan endorsed by the British Medical Association, other health unions and medical Royal colleges. Despite the enormous implications the 2021 health and care bill has escaped media scrutiny.

Americanized Healthcare

U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid meets NHS staff  atSt Thomas Hospital in June 2021. (Simon Dawson, No 10 Downing)

The ultimate corporatisation of primary care within the new American-style Integrated Care Systems (Primary Care Networks ), created by the health and care bill and championed by the pro-market Policy Exchange was revealed by ex-banker and current Health Secretary Sajid Javid MP. The Times headline is a masterful example of Orwellian double speak: 

“GPs nationalised in Javid plan to reduce hospital admissions”

The intention is that the existing GP independent contractor status is to be replaced by a totally salaried doctor arrangement which has been initiated in Wolverhampton. The article neglects to inform the reader that the “nationalized” GPs will in due course be working for corporate run Primary Care Networks.

Most importantly, the GP practices’ registered patient lists with their capitation budgets are swallowed up by the Integrated Care Systems to include all public health and care funding from which profits can then be siphoned out by the controlling corporations including UnitedHealth.

Few recognised that this was the ultimate goal of the GP contract changes from 2004 and further progressed in 2019 with the creation of Primary Care Networks using a new contract which the British Medical Association endorsed as a harmless additional funding stream, without meaningful debate or a vote of its membership.

The Primary Care Networks’ contract solution for the GP workforce crisis was not to directly recruit or retain more GPs but to fund the “additional roles reimbursement scheme” to expand the number of non-doctor substitutes. Private healthcare always seeks to reduce cost which includes down-skilling the workforce, eroding quality and safety along the way. The Primary Care Networks contract introduces explicit incentives to reduce medical spending on patient care:

“We will also offer primary care networks a new ‘shared saving’ scheme so that they can benefit from the actions to reduce avoidable A&E attendances, admissions and delayed discharge …”

Or as U.S. President Richard Nixon’s adviser John Ehrlichman put it so clearly when describing the essence of this healthcare model in 1971:

“All the incentives are towards less medical care, because the less care they [HMO/ICS] give them [patients] the more money they [HMO/ICS] make”

Working within the private, corporate-operated Primary Care Networks — designed to create profits — will inevitably diminishing the status, autonomy and job satisfaction for medical staff and quality of care for patients. Doctors are seen as a cost centers in privatized healthcare so the fewer there are, the weaker their authority and incentivised to save money, the better for the bottom line.

The evidence for the devastation caused by the program of shrinking bed capacity and closing emergency departments has been laid bare by the pandemic. Even a leading pro-market think tank assesses the Primary Care Networks program as a failure but government remains hell bent on replicating the dystopian American system, which has medical error as the third leading cause of death.

A small minority of GPs will prosper under the new arrangements as they continue to exploit salaried doctors and medical teams at scale then sell them out to corporations like insurance giant Centene and secure lucrative appointments within the new system’s bloated management bureaucracy or an establishment honour as reward for past co-operation or ideological alignment but the vast majority will lose out, as will their patients.

Overdue Collective Realization

Stepney, East End, London. (Robert Lamb, Creative Commons)

GP morale is at rock bottom after enduring press attacks, loss of public trust, reduced numbers to cope with increased workload generated by growing waiting lists and overstretched hospitals. A crisis of government creation is being cynically exploited to destroy what’s left of traditional general practice that has served the patients well.

GPs are in survival mode while the British Medical Association continues to assist the profession’s demise.

It will be difficult to adjust to the growing unmet need and preventable suffering of our patients that will inevitably arise from the denial of care for patients. The pandemic inflicted societal psychological trauma and helped to erode standards and expectations but there is still some way to go as waiting lists are allowed to grow and more services are stripped out of NHS provision. The magical thinking associated with the hyped potential of virtual and remote services is cover for abandonment of the social contract to care for the sick. 

Further loss of continuity of care and dilution of GP involvement may provide some protection against any ethical or moral tensions raised by the corrupted system. Being relegated to just one of many functionary cogs in the Primary Care Networks machine will also diminish the sense of professional responsibility. For others the psychological burden will hasten their exit.

Memories of public service ethos, effective patient treatment and advocacy will be suppressed out of necessity to satisfy commercial objectives.

The vast majority of doctors have to work to live and also rely on the NHS for healthcare when needed. We have a shared interest with our patients to have high quality healthcare delivered by competent, well rewarded and ethical doctors who have no other consideration other than to treat the sick in the best way possible.

First, they came for the cleaners, then the caters, then the porters, then the student nurses, then the junior doctors and now they are coming for the GPs. Is it too late for an effective push back? Can enough brave, informed and energetic doctors, patients or concerned citizens create an effective resistance?

Only with understanding of the threat, discarding the fallacy that our politicians and media are serving the public interest, bypassing co-opted and controlled channels to reach out directly to the mass of the public can we build the necessary citizens movement to win back our NHS.

Dr. Bob Gill is a GP and producer of the feature length documentary The Great NHS Heist.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

4 comments for “Corporate Takeover of NHS: The Demise of British Primary Care

  1. Howling Mad
    March 18, 2022 at 10:23

    loss of public trust?
    I have enrolled in a hip resurfacing clinical trial since 2018, got paused beginning 2019, resumed early 2020 to be paused.
    Got invited to do operation in Cornwall in April 2021, spoke online with the orthopedic surgeon all good.
    6 months after i receive a letter that they are not doing out of county patients, complained to zero effect. Everything is suspended.
    But also enrolled in a 2nd clinical trial for a competitive product, was going to be Southmead Bristol, and guess what, southmead became a covid ward in Winter 2021 despite the low cases and low hospitalizations.
    Got turfed to Nottingham, went there did scans, and now it’s suspended until April, and this is not me, it is the trial/operations.
    I have been kicked up and down the country.
    The NHS wants respect? earn it
    I pay a good amount of taxes, my health insurance doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions, even though I had this condition when I was with them back in 2014.
    Want to blame it to privatization? if I wasn’t ripped off in taxes, a good couples of 10s of thousands I would pay for it myself abroad.
    Screw the NHS

  2. James Simpson
    March 18, 2022 at 06:15

    So long as we don’t have a democracy, we will have to endure more of this. Neither party of capital has the slightest interest in anything other than smoothing the road to full health service privatisation. We need to find a way to destroy both parties and create a properly-democratic socialist state.

  3. Lois Gagnon
    March 17, 2022 at 13:17

    The fascist corporate coup d’etat just keeps on rolling along with little resistance. We need a global revolution and we need it now.

  4. Ian Stevenson
    March 17, 2022 at 11:13

    there is a formula -underfund, create a crisis, declare it must be privatised.

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