Headlines: June 5th, 2006

The Government is being urged today to clarify the role of the NHS market. A new report, commissioned by the King’s Fund says if current health reforms are to work, the Government must state unequivocally that it wants to create a health care market with a range of providers and that it believes this represents the long-term future for the health service.The recommendation comes from an independent working group made up of health service leaders from the NHS and the voluntary and the independent sectors. They have examined the changing landscape of funded services and went on to look at what needed to be done to make the new market work effectively for patients.

Their report, “Designing the ‘new’ NHS: Ideas to make a supplier market in health care work”, calls for greater clarity over long-term objectives and says the first challenge must be for the Government to refrain from setting an upper limit to independent sector provision in the market. The report recommends that the amount of care coming from private and voluntary sectors and the Health Service should emerge as the market develops and not be artificially defined.

The working group, which included representatives from Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts as well as from private providers and charities, have put forward a series of ideas for making the new market work. These include less central control, all providers operating on a level playing field, more exploration of regulation, including the possibility of a separate competition regulator, a strengthening of commissioning and the enhancement of the health service’s infrastructure, including prioritising the success of the ‘Connecting for Health’ IT programme.

The working group’s chair, Greg Parston, who is now Director of the Institute for Public Service Value at Accenture, said the creation of a supply-side market offered tremendous opportunities but also carried great risks. It could enlarge patient choice and drive competitive improvements in services but a poorly operating market could damage the widely acknowledged strengths of the NHS and undermine patient care. “With the greater clarity of direction, the improvements to central structure and regulation, the strengthening of commissioning and the better infrastructure that this report recommends, it will be possible to create a future in which the health care market produces a service that is more innovative and responsive to patients’ needs and wishes while also operating more efficiently and delivering better value for money