PRIVATE hospitals across Scotland are to be given the chance to bid to perform operations on Lothian patients waiting for treatment.
NHS Lothian bosses have already signed off on contracts which could be worth more than £10 million to private hospitals in Glasgow and Edinburgh in their bid to slash a huge waiting lists backlog by October.
It has now emerged that the board is set to put the work out to tender through the Scottish Government in an attempt to get a better deal financially.
The move came after it was revealed that private companies which secured the latest contracts with NHS Lothian had refused to give the health board a significant discount, as they were aware of its desperation to cut waiting times.
Susan Goldsmith, NHS Lothian’s director of finance, said that the publicity surrounding the waiting list crisis had put bosses in a “difficult” position when attempting to secure deals.
While the board is looking for “best value” from the tendering process, it is expected to specify that hospitals bidding to carry out blocks of operations must be in an area reasonably close to the Lothians.
Ms Goldsmith admitted that the high-profile nature of the Lothians waiting list backlog had made it harder to agree a substantial discount.
She said: “There has been a lot of coverage of the waiting time position, so we are in a difficult negotiating position.
“Going out to tender is the only way to secure better prices and we plan to do that.”
If the tender is successful, it could lead to NHS Lothian patients being offered operations at private hospitals other than the two in Glasgow and two in Edinburgh which have already been given contracts to treat patients.
The criteria for the tender, which will state how far away hospitals will have to be from the Lothians to qualify for the work, has not yet been set.
But while companies from across Scotland will be able to bid for the work, it is understood health bosses are looking to keep the operations as close to the Lothians as possible.
The current contracts will see patients offered operations at private hospitals within a 97-minute drive.
Private hospitals in Stirling and Dundee – which are within the 97-minute distance – are among those expected to bid for NHS Lothian work.
Tom Waterson, Lothian branch chairman for Unison, criticised the plan, and said that even if discounts are secured, it would still be cheaper to treat patients within the NHS.
“What we need to do is utilise the full capacity of the NHS in Scotland,” he said. “The capacity is there, yet we continue to pay the private sector a huge wodge of cash. It’s completely wrong.
“With the private sector, it’s all about profit. The only people that should be profiting are the patients.”
Margaret Watt, chairperson of the Scottish Patients Association, said: “I don’t care if they end up getting these operations for tuppence. This shouldn’t be happening in Scotland and I’m surprised the SNP are allowing it. We should be using other health boards before the private sector.”
NHS Lothian has refused to reveal the level of discount it has received from the private sector in the latest contracts as it said the information was “commercially sensitive”.
It said the discount was “reasonable” but that efforts were being made to secure cheaper contracts.
In coming months, it is anticipated that £5.2m will go to BMI Ross Hall Hospital and just over £1m will go to Nuffield Health Hospital, which are both in Glasgow.
A further £3.4m has been earmarked for Spire Murrayfield Hospital and £1m is set to go to the Edinburgh Clinic.
Ms Goldsmith added: “We are planning to put future work out to tender to ensure the best possible value for money. Work is already under way to achieve that.
“As part of the process, NHS Lothian will set the criteria expected from prospective healthcare providers and that would include location.
“In line with any contract valued over £50,000, NHS Lothian will be required to advertise in the online Public Contracts Scotland portal created by the Scottish Government.”
The health board has admitted that even if the list is cleared, some patients will continue to be offered operations at private hospitals for at least the next two to three years.
CALLING THE SHOTS
UNDER new plans, NHS Lothian patients will be contacted directly by private hospitals offering operations.
Instead of patients having to pay for travel costs and then claiming them back, however, they will be made offers of free accommodation and advance transport in a bid to encourage them to accept the offers.
They may be given taxis, have train fares paid in advance or be offered use of a private car service. Hotels for family or friends may also be organised.
NHS Lothian has claimed the policy has been designed to “remove anxieties”, but others have raised fears that patients could be subjected to a “hard sell”, or that private information will be passed to companies.