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Camden News - by TOM FOOT
Published: 5 February 2009

Campaigners in South End Green last week

Patients call for referendum on how health services are run

PATIENTS are arguing for an unprecedented referendum with the simple question: Do you want private firms running Camden’s health services?
The plan for a straightforward Yes or No vote is being taken seriously at the Town Hall in the run-up to a series of crunch decisions over contracts for services such as doctors’ surgeries.
NHS Camden – the new name for Camden’s Primary Care Trust – is under pressure to give patients a bigger say, while council leaders are being urged to do their bit by sanctioning a borough-wide referendum.
It would be the first-ever vote of its kind in the country, but campaigners believe the issue is of such local importance that the leadership at both Camden Council and Camden NHS should take the plunge.
Campaigners from Keep NHS Public will march through Camden on Valentine’s Day to publicise their point of view.
Board members of Camden NHS have already angered hundreds of patients by allowing three GP clinics in the south of the borough to be run by UnitedHealth UK – the British arm of a giant American healthcare company – against the wishes of patients.
The board will face a rough ride if they want to follow a similar route with other deals and have already been ordered to inform the Town Hall of what they are up to.
Labour councillor Pat Callaghan told a council meeting on Thursday: “I think we should stand up and say: ‘We are not satisfied’. These firms are taking advantage of us. We should go for a referendum because we should, as a council, be leading the charge rather than blindly following the government’s lead. We represent the people after all.”
NHS Camden, which awards all local health contracts, is currently drafting a legally-binding blueprint for all future public consultation programmes to be used when four major contracts are tendered later this year.
The services up for grabs include a major accident and emergency service currently being run by a consortium of local doctors in the Royal Free Hospital and the service currently run by popular out-of-hours doctors co-operative, Camidoc.
In theory, the referendum would rule on whether private operators can join the competition for contracts.
There are concerns that the Department of Health will not react positively to a referendum result – as it has proved keen to push market forces into the system. But Green councillor Alex Goodman told last week’s meeting: “As I understand it the NHS Camden is obliged by law to offer services for tender unless there are exceptional circumstances. It may be that an overwhelming majority voting against it could provide these exceptional circumstances.”
Jackie Davis, a consultant radiologist at the Whittington Hospital, added: “There is pressure coming from the government to go out to tender, but it is not a legal requirement.”
Chairwoman of Keep Camden GPs in the NHS, Candy Udwin, said: “If we don’t make a stand the majority of people, doctors, patients and councillors – who are against this – will be simply stuck watching this happen before their eyes.”
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 established a fixed legal framework for the conduct of regional referendums within England. They are reserved for matters effecting the “well-being” local residents.
Liberal Democrat councillor John Bryant said: “I am sympathetic to these concerns and to what [campaigners] are trying to achieve. We are all rather concerned about finding alternatives to open procurements.”
Mark Atkinson, director of service improvement at NHS Camden, said: “The Department of Health has made it very clear that we do not have to consult on the type of service provider itself. If we do not we could be brought before a competition panel and face judicial review.”

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