Private providers have been given the chance to bid for thousands of NHS services for the first time due to new European Union competition rules.
While the recent Brexit decision has been largely condemned by health service sources, it could be suggested that this is the sort of decision which demonstrates that Brexit may not be all bad for the NHS.
NHS England has published “prior information notices” for its specialised services contracts in the Official Journal of the European Union this month, in line with new EU regulations introduced in April.
The notices say NHS England’s buying department is “looking for potential suppliers” to contact them with bid applications.
This national body is responsible for commissioning about £15 billion worth of specialised services, and has created 278 contract “lots”, which encompass suites of services to be provided in specific geographies.
The public notices signal an intent to award whole contracts for 2017-19 to the incumbent providers, unless expressions of interest are received from alternative operators, triggering a competitive process.
Expressions of interest must be received within 21 days of 14th October, when the notice was initially published.
A private sector source, who asked not to be named, said non-NHS providers “already do more specialised work than is sometimes acknowledged”, often in partnership with an NHS trust.
But they added that “the tight timetable does make it difficult to forge the partnerships that might be needed. There may still be interest but it’ll be at the margins.”
Services such as specialised cancer, diagnostics, cardiac and renal care may be targeted as these are already contracted to private providers in some areas.
In a note sent to providers of specialised services earlier this month, NHS England noted that the arrangement is very much a new initiative.
“This will be the first time the new rules have applied to the contracting round for NHS specialised services. The regulations set out a new light touch regime, which allows commissioners flexibility to design an appropriate, proportionate process.”
This means the contracts must be publicly advertised where they are worth more than €750,000, the process must be transparent and bidders treated equally, and the criteria must not artificially constrain competition or specify organisational form, among other conditions.
The note also outlined more information about the prior information notice.
“The prior information notice will also include notice of our intent to explore the opportunities for longer than two year contracts where this affords opportunities for significant improvements in service quality and efficiency facilitated by using the NHS standard contract option to extend term for up to two years.”
Commenting on the issue, an NHS England spokeswoman outlined the advantages of this approach.
“Setting out our contracts for existing services in this way enhances transparency and provides an opportunity to ensure the NHS and our patients are getting the best value and quality of care.”
Jeremy Hunt recently stated that the NHS in England will become “self sufficient” in doctors after Brexit.