FORMER NHS Lothian chief executive Professor James Barbour today defended the hiring of management consultants by the health board in a £75,000 deal which is being investigated at the request of Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon.
HD Partners were drafted in to find beds in the private sector for Lothian patients due to a shortage in the health board’s own hospitals.
Today Prof Barbour dismissed claims that the deal had wasted money by paying a “middle man” when a “few phone calls” by NHS staff could have achieved the same result.
The deal had in fact saved the NHS half a million pounds, he said.
Ms Sturgeon has asked NHS Lothian to explain how the contract came to be awarded and is seeking assurances it was placed in an “open and transparent” manner.
Prof Barbour, 59, left NHS Lothian in April with a £220,000 payoff as the scandal of hidden waiting lists deepened and the Scottish Government released extra funds to allow patients to be seen quickly and privately in some cases.
Speaking outside his cottage in Aberlady, East Lothian, Prof Barbour said he sought the help of HD Partners to cut the waiting lists, but denied direct personal involvement in any contracts signed by NHS Lothian.
He said: “NHS Lothian had a well-known problem with capacity in relation to waiting times. Colleagues were making efforts to secure additional capacity. HD Partners had previously done work with NHS Lothian in helping to secure capacity.
“In response to requests from colleagues, I asked HD Partners if they would be able to help. They spoke directly with my colleagues and undertook some work directly with them.
“I was not involved in any discussion with HD Partners and did not enter into any contract with them.
“What I understand HD Partners did was help Jackie Sansbury [chief operating officer for NHS Lothian] negotiate a better deal with the private sector and that the work they did saved around half a million pounds.
“Director of finance Susan Goldsmith signed off the contracts. She would not have made any payment if there was anything untoward.”
He added: “I did not enter into any contract and had no discussion with HD Partners about money.
“I have no contractual arrangement with HD Partners, I do not work for them and have received no payment from them.”
An audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers was ordered after reports that patients were being offered unrealistic appointments for surgery in England and removed from waiting lists figures when they declined, indicating that the health board was meeting targets when it was in fact the worst in Scotland for getting patients seen on time.
An independent probe into the management culture at NHS Lothian was also launched and found widespread bullying among staff.
Senior Unison official Dave Watson said the union had raised concerns in the past about the way in which contracts like that with HD Partners are signed off.
A spokesman for NHS Lothian said: “NHS Lothian employed HD Partners for two pieces of work related to waiting times management. This amounted to around £75,000. NHS Lothian has no further contracts with HD Partners.
“We have now received a letter [from Ms Sturgeon] asking us to consider looking at the circumstances surrounding the awards of the contracts.”
When the News contacted the London offices of HD Partners in Mayfair the member of staff who answered said the firm was not based at that address.
WORST IN SCOTLAND
HEALTH bosses in the Lothians have been slammed after figures showed the region’s performance in hitting national targets for waiting times is the worst in Scotland.
Under the Scottish Government’s target, health boards must ensure at least 90 per cent of patients are treated within 18 weeks of referral by a doctor.
In March, only 85.3 per cent of Lothian patients began treatment within the target time, with 2324 people waiting longer.
The figure puts NHS Lothian behind every other board in the country and marks the third consecutive monthly drop in the number of patients treated within government-set timescales.
The new data follows revelations in March that NHS Lothian was recording patients as unavailable after they declined appointments in England in order to reduce the number of people missing waiting time targets.
Jackson Carlaw, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “Clearly, NHS Lothian has been ill-equipped to deal with the number of patients it receives for many years.
“We now need to establish if this practice was limited to NHS Lothian, or is it more widely spread?”