Sex health fears for county

A WARNING was today issued to health bosses that their decision to commission a private company to provide sexual health services in Suffolk could prove disastrous.

Rebecca Lefort

SEXUAL health services could be left in chaos after a private company was given the nod to take over, Suffolk health bosses claimed today.

In a letter, leaked to The Evening Star, it emerged chiefs fear the decision to award the contract to Ipswich-based Take Care Now (TCN) could prove disastrous for the already under-pressure service.

From April TCN will spearhead Suffolk's sexual health services, beating NHS providers to the multi-million pound contract awarded by NHS Suffolk, the county's primary care trust (PCT).

Union leaders are also concerned about the impact the move will have on jobs, and that non money-making services could be in jeopardy as the new company puts the bottom-line first.

The move comes at a time when rates of sexually transmitted infections and abortions are rising in Suffolk.

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Following the controversial decision it has been claimed that:

- TCN does not have any experience of providing sexual health services

- Did not have a service model when it was bidding for the contract

- With just six months to go before it takes over, TCN still has not made clear how the service will be run

- Current providers Ipswich Hospital, West Suffolk Hospital and Suffolk Community healthcare were told their bid was not transformational or exciting enough - but will still have to provide the services for TCN.

In a letter sent to Tracy Dowling, NHS Suffolk's director of strategic commissioning, top bosses from Ipswich Hospital, West Suffolk Hospital and Suffolk Community Healthcare said they had expressed “major concerns over the process and the potential impact of the decision”.

They wrote: “We still believe that this service model should have been clearly defined by TCN before contract award and not produced after the event and using current provider staff.

“Currently the PCT is at risk of not being able to procure a service that was set out.”

The damning letter also claims the NHS organisations warned the PCT not to sign the three-year contract with TCN, which has also been awarded NHS Suffolk's medical out of hours, dentistry out of hours, and mobile injury clinic contracts, until all controversial issues had been resolved - and this advice was not followed.

And it highlights how the debacle has left staff morale at rock bottom, adding: “The current service is at risk of destabilisation because of these unresolved issues.”

- Are you concerned about the state of sexual health services in Suffolk? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Union's view:-

CLARE Jacobs from the Suffolk branch of the Royal College of Nursing said staff were worried about the implications of the change of contract.

She said: “We don't yet know what the terms will be. If they are going to take over the service and run it, or just manage it like a commissioner.

“We would have particular concerns if staff were employed by TCN because what happens to all their NHS terms and conditions?

“And staff on the ground will be worried because they don't know what the impact on services will be.

“Will TCN put the right amount of investment in? That is why people are anxious.

“If services don't make money will they just stop providing them? Will they only do things that make them money?”

Employee's concern:-

THE Evening Star was contacted by someone working within Suffolk's healthcare system who was concerned about the changes, but too scared to give their name.

In the letter the employee said: “The current NHS providers - Ipswich Hospital, West Suffolk Hospital and Suffolk Community Healthcare, all bid to provide the service but it was turned down because the model proposed (although it met the criteria set out in the tender) was not “transformational” enough, the marketing plan was not “robust” and overall the tender bid was not exciting enough.

“The bid went to a private company, TCN. It now turns out they do not have a service model (although the tender specified they should have one), they have no marketing plan and all they want to do is contract the current providers to provide the service.”

The employee added: “Can anyone explain to me how a good use of NHS resources is for a PCT to give a tender to a private company to commission services from the current providers on their behalf?”

Take Care Now's view:-

DR Jim Kennedy, medical director of Take Care Now, said: “We are presently working in collaboration with the current hospital and community providers to assess how best integrated sexual health services are delivered across Suffolk.

“We were awarded the contract on the basis that the services would be enhanced to offer patients better access to services and consistent, high quality care, particularly those in vulnerable groups.

“This can only be achieved through the continued delivery of services by appropriately qualified staff such as those working for Suffolk Community Health services.

“We recognise that patients and staff may have concerns during any period of change to a service.

“We aim to improve sexual health services in Suffolk working with existing providers and have no plan to reduce the numbers of staff engaged in the delivery of this service."

TCN added that a decision had not yet been made about whether existing staff would remain employed by the NHS or would become TCN staff.

The bosses' views:-

DESPITE claiming in their letter to NHS Suffolk to be extremely concerned about the contract award, NHS bosses remained tight-lipped when contacted by The Evening Star.

John Such, chief operating officer of Suffolk Community Healthcare (SCH), refused to be interviewed about a contract matter, even though the story affects thousands of patients across the country as well as his staff.

Instead he said in a statement: "We are working closely with all of our partners to ensure patients are provided with the best possible service and will be meeting with our partners later this week for further discussions."

Mr Such also refused to answer a series of questions put to him by the Star, including:

- Why was he concerned services would be destabilised?

- Would SCH lose money?

- And did he regret writing the letter?

Meanwhile Andrew Reed, Ipswich Hospital's chief executive, added: “We have an open and constructive relationship with NHS Suffolk and we are working together in the best interests of patients to ensure a smooth transfer."

Fastfacts: Sexual health services in Suffolk

- In Suffolk rates of sexually transmitted infections and abortions are rising

- The problems are particularly acute in Ipswich

- Around £4 million a year is currently spent on reproductive health and sexual health services

- In 2006/2007 Ipswich Hospital and West Suffolk Hospital's GUM clinics saw 10,837 new patients between them

- Latest figures show 177 in Suffolk are living with HIV

- In 2006/2007 there were 1,269 abortions performed in Suffolk

SOURCE: NHS Suffolk