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Camden News - by TOM FOOT
Published: 3 July 2008

Protesters outside the Department of Health in Whitehall earlier this year
Over here... US team drafted onto board of firm running GP surgeries

Transatlantic injection for company claiming to operate differently from parent group

AN influential team of board members working for UnitedHealth Group in the United States has been dispatched overseas to help run its operations in the UK.
Documents stored in Companies House – the official register of UK companies – show three high-profile appointments were made at UnitedHealth UK on May 21.
The private firm – which seized control of three Camden doctors’ surgeries in April – now counts Lee Valenta, David Ostler and Brigid Spicola on its board.
The documents also reveal the departure of Dr Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, who resigned his post as chief executive of the British arm of the company in November and is now working for the firm in America.
Since moving into Camden, UnitedHealth UK has asked patients to make a distinction between the operations of its American parent company and how it works here. In the United States, UnitedHealth has faced accusations and indictments over health insurance fraud.
The firm was featured in Michael Moore’s health docu-movie Sicko, in which he claimed 18,000 Americans die each year because they cannot afford to pay insurance.
The company has been running Brunswick Medical Centre in Bloomsbury, Camden Road Surgery in Camden Town and King’s Cross Road Surgery in King’s Cross since April. Its takeover of the surgeries was mired in controversy, with patients arguing it was a step towards privatisation of the borough’s health services.
At a public meeting with the primary care trust, UnitedHealth UK director of external affairs Tony Sampson declined to comment on the fraud allegations faced by the parent company, adding: “The way things are done in the United States is different from here, with health insurance. It is a totally different way of working.”
Dr Peter Smith, director of primary care at UnitedHealth UK, added: “We are looking for a continuity in the service. We are not replacing the GPs with Americans. We are part of UnitedHealth but this arm of the company is based in the UK, working within the NHS for the NHS.”
The board of UnitedHealth UK (UHUK), until the departure of Dr Richard Smith in November, was almost entirely made up of British members, a formidable group of policy advisers with links to former government figures.
But the Companies House documents reveal a sweeping American influence. Mr Valenta and Mr Ostler, formerly chief executive and vice-president of Ingenix, an insurance company owned by UnitedHealth, were appointed to the board of the UK operation on May 23. They were joined by Ms Spicola, who worked for UnitedHealth on Ingenix’s work outside the United States.
In a widely reported case in America, Ingenix has been investigated by the country’s top law enforcement official, Andrew Cuomo, who has been looking at how the UnitedHealth Group calculated reimbursement rates for patients making insurance claims.
According to a report by US media giants Bloomberg, the system used by Ingenix saved UnitedHealth $1.3billion in 2007 but Mr Cuomo is seeking to curb the role Ingenix plays in determining patient payouts. In a statement released on his official website in February, Mr Cuomo said: “When insurers create convoluted and dishonest systems for determining the rate of reimbursement, real people get stuck with excessive bills and are less likely to seek the care they need.”
Other new faces on the board of the British arm of UnitedHealth are Bryan Johnson, a financial adviser for United Healthcare in Minnesota, and Samuel Ours, former vice-president of UH operations in Minneapolis. Both were named UHUK board directors in December last year following Dr Richard Smith’s resignation.
They join Mr Sampson, who came to UHUK from the Department of Health, where he worked as private secretary to health minister Alan Milburn, and Simon Stevens, professor of health policy at the London School of Economics, who is listed as chairman of UHUK. He served as former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s health adviser.
At a public meeting last Wednesday, former health secretary Frank Dobson said: “It is not as if they are running a brilliant service in the US. UnitedHealth have been indicted for swindling taxpayers and patients. Would you employ a company that had a record like that?” He has continued his attacks on the company in speeches in Parliament.
A UnitedHealth spokesman said: “We would like to reiterate that UnitedHealth UK is a UK-registered company. UnitedHealth is a successful international healthcare and wellbeing company. The combination of this experience and the knowledge and expertise our UK staff have of the NHS means we can make a real contribution to improving health care for NHS patients.
“The UHUK leadership team includes both UK and non-UK personnel.”
Dr Richard Smith is due to speak on the use of the private sector in an annual lecture at Whittington Hospital in Highgate on Tuesday. A demonstration is planned from 5.30pm outside the hospital.

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