Mixed reaction to new health hubs

April 15, 2013

By Christine Keighery

Health Minister, Edwin Poots has announced the creation of a new multi-million health centre for Newry. The Minister unveiled the plans for the new state of the art facilities in an official press conference last Thursday.  Two £40 million Health Centres are set to be built in both Newry and Lisburn, which will house GPs and a number of community services currently provided by Trusts, including diagnostic services, imaging and children’s services.

The centres will be staffed and equipped by the NHS while the buildings will be financed by the private sector, via an arrangement known as Third Party Development (3PD) which involves a partnership with a private sector company.

The new facilities are part of the Transforming Your Care plan, which aims to reform health and social care. According to Minister Poots, the health care hubs will reduce hospital admissions by allowing people to be diagnosed and treated in the community, closer to home.

He said on Thursday: “A key element of ongoing health care reform is the need to move services away from hospitals except where it is absolutely necessary and to develop service provision in the community so that people can access treatment closer to their own homes or, where possible, at home.

Designed to be more user friendly, it is hoped the centres can be a one-stop-shop for healthcare with pharmacies, therapists, health visitors, community dentistry, physiotherapy and even citizen’s advice bureaus housed within them.

“I am of the view that synergies can be developed within local communities by private sector providers co-locating other provision within the same premises,” he continued.

“Each facility would be tailored to meet local needs and the hubs will offer a much greater range of services to the communities which they serve.”

“The provision of these new facilities will assist that process.”

The scheme has drawn mixed reactions with some heralding it as a positive move for healthcare provision and others concerned that it marks the first step to privatisation of healthcare.

Ian Coulter, Chairman of Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland, welcomed the announcement, describing the new centres as “a key driver in the proposed ‘shift left’ from secondary to primary care, allowing services to be delivered to patients closer to their home and enabling our health professionals to work within the best environments, utilising the most modern technology, to deliver that enhanced level of care.”

Mr Coulter also supported the 3PD financing model for the centres, viewing it as a “crucial step forward” in terms of utilising private finance to meet Northern Ireland’s infrastructure needs.

Leading public service union Unison has branded the 3PD scheme a “discredited private finance initiative under another name” and warned “This is the slippery slope.”

The union has called for an inquiry into what they called the “startling growth of private medicine funded out of the health service budget”.

“The public are continually told that services or hospitals must close or be centralised for medical safety or because we do not have enough doctors” said a Unison spokesperson.

“But the same doctors are receiving second payments to treat our patients privately.

“It is now time for the Public Accounts Committee and the Assembly Health Committee to move to investigate before irreparable damage is done to our health and social care system.”

SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said the decision was “a worrying development in relation to the future of the NHS and confirms the fears of so many people that the minister’s recent consultation on TYC was an exercise in creeping privatisation.”

Mr Poots, however, has insisted that the scheme, although privately funded, is not private health care.

“We are not experts at building but we are experts at delivering health care,” he said.

“I am of the view that there will be significant benefits to be gained by active involvement of the private sector in delivery of these two facilities.”

Third party developers will be selected to build the facilities and they will then lease the buildings back to the health service. A spokeswoman from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said the cost of using this route to finance the projects is not yet known. She said this will be a key aspect of the procurement process and will become clear as it progresses.

Completion of the facilities is expected in 2016.