Headlines: March 18th, 2003

A ballot of family doctors on the proposed new contract for GPs has been delayed while the British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation investigate reports that many practices would lose money under the new arrangements, putting their viability at risk.The BMA announced details of the proposed new contract last month following 16 months of negotiations with the NHS Confederation, acting as agents for the government. Voting papers on the acceptability of the deal were due to go out on Thursday this week to all the UK’s 43,000 GPs, with the closing date for the ballot scheduled for April 11th.

The delay follows the emergence of problems last week when the country’s 11,000 GP practices received individual figures to help them estimate their potential incomes under the new arrangements. Large numbers of doctors said they would be worse off, even if they achieved high scores in the quality performance framework. Now investigations into the cause of this problem will centre on the formula used to work out practice allocations and the patient list data on which it is based.

Dr John Chisholm, who chairs the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee, said it could not support funding arrangements which threatened to undermine the viability of practices. With the huge shortage of family doctors, he said, the country could not afford to lose practices. “We fully understand GPs’ concerns and anxieties. We have decided to suspend the ballot on the acceptability of the contract temporarily, until we have analysed the nature and size of the problem and can put forward solutions,” he said. “We are taking urgent steps to ensure that no practices are destabilised, whilst preserving the principles underpinning the new contract and being fair to all GPs,” he added.

A letter explaining the situation is being sent to GPs and there will be emergency meetings to try to find a solution. The BMA hopes to announce a new date for the ballot as soon as possible. Mike Farrar, chair of the NHS Confederation negotiating team, said the delay in the ballot would enable the Confederation to work with the BMA to examine doctors’ concerns.