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Published: 27 March 2008
The packed Town Hall chamber on Tuesday night
The packed Town Hall chamber on Tuesday night
The great rebellion: doctors and patients fight to stop American takeover

• Vote of no confidence in PCT • High Court case possible • Sit-in and pickets planned • Fears US firm wants complete takeover of Camden’s surgeries • GPs urged to boycott

THE American company set to seize control of three Camden doctor surgeries could be eyeing up even more key health contracts in a bit-by-bit takeover of the borough’s services.
This is the stark warning from campaigners who have urged all patients and doctors in Camden, not just those involved in the current takeover of GP practices in the south of the borough, to get involved in a mass protest.
The message is clear: Stop UnitedHealth now – or your surgery could be next.
The company, the British arm of the largest healthcare provider in the United States, has been handed control of the Brunswick Medical Centre in Bloomsbury, the Camden Road Surgery, Camden Town and the King’s Cross Road Surgery.
So fierce is the objection to the move, patients and doctors passed a vote of no confidence in the Camden Primary Care Trust board, which awarded the contract – the clearest message that faith in their ability to give the public what they want has sunk to a new low.
The main concern centres on a fear that UnitedHealth’s operations will be driven by profits and a natural desire to please shareholders.
Dr Paddy Glackin, chairman of Camden’s Local Medical Committee, warned on Tuesday that the controversy might not end there.
He said Camden had been singled almost as a guinea-pig case to test the water.
“In Camden there appears to be a gallop towards privatisation of primary care,” said Dr Glackin. “This isn’t happening in other boroughs in London. This appears to be specifically a Camden problem. The challenge is to make the PCT involve you in the decision making process.”
He was speaking at a campaign meeting for objectors to the contract award.
Around 200 doctors and patients turned up at the main chamber in Camden’s Town Hall and raised their arms defiantly to back the no-confidence vote.
Dr Glackin said: “We know that UnitedHealth has had conversations with the PCT. We suspect UnitedHealth want to take over the out of hours services. We believe they are interested in a polyclinic in the front accident and emergency service at University College London Hospital. We think they have interest in any polyclinics in Camden. As polyclinics could squeeze out GPs, it isn’t ridiculous to think that this company, in 10 years, could be in control of nearly every service in the borough.”
It is not clear whether the final contracts for the three surgeries have been signed amid the huge public objections.
Barbara Saunders, a patient at the Brunswick, has hired a legal team which has already fired a warning shot that the issue might have to be decided in the High Court and a judicial review.
She said: “I don’t feel I was consulted about it at all.
“If you don’t read newspapers and you are not online, then there was no way of knowing about it. So I’m trying to bring a case against the PCT for non-consultation. My view definitely wasn’t heard.”
But if the legal challenge is batted away, objectors believe they need a plan B, and possibly even a plan C, D, and E.
The fightback will continue with a march on the Department of Health’s office on Monday night.
Other suggestions have included 1960s style sit-ins and a picketing of UnitedHealth’s offices.
Jo Shaw, the Liberal Democrat candidate facing Frank Dobson in Holborn and St Pancras at the next general election, said: “The problem is that the PCT has to consult us – it does not have to listen to us and they are not.”
Mr Dobson admitted the vote of no confidence was a strong message but said: “I think its clear that the public has lost confidence in the PCT. They have been caught out on this.”
He told the meeting that he has asked the PCT whether it had known about fraud investigations into UnitedHealth’s operations in the United States when it agreed to hand over the Camden contacts, likely to net the company around £1 million a year in profits.
“The [PCT] response was: We do not believe that will impact on what is happening in Camden,” said Mr Dobson. “It’s like saying: It’s all right, they are only crooks in the United States but they go straight as soon as they cross the Atlantic.”
He said there was a sea change in government policy in the United States which had seen presidential candidates promising reforms – a shift which had seen healthcare companies searching for other areas in the world to operate in.
Asked later why Prime Minister Gordon Brown did not intervene, Mr Dobson added: “I think he is worried that he will come across to the Blairites as undoing all the things the Blairites did.”
The PCT, which insists it followed a rigorous appointments procedure and has confidence in UnitedHealth, is now facing one of its strongest challenges.
There is a plan to lobby every single member of the board.
Labour councillor Penny Abraham, who represents Bloomsbury, said: “We need to bring the PCT into the bright light and see what they really think. Their positions are comparable to councillors and I well know that we can be brought into the bright light.”
Senior figures at UnitedHealth will also be watching protests carefully. The company has already said it will keep some doctors on and expand services, increasing opening hours and making it easier to see GPs.
But not in recent memory has a PCT board decision been met with such an outcry in Camden.
Backbench councillors from all parties are expected to meet next week to see whether they can refer the issue to health secretary Alan Johnson given the level of dissatisfaction – albeit with mutterings growing louder on a political point-scoring level as to why the Town Hall did not make a deeper investigation into the process earlier on.
Wendy Savage, from Keep Our NHS Public, said: “What they are trying to do here is create a real market in the NHS. Everybody knows that healthcare is not right for a real market. It is quite simple: When you are sick you want to trust the people that are looking after you will do the right thing.”
• Objectors to the takeover will be protesting outside the Department of Health on Monday at 5.30pm.

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