Published: February 09, 2012
by TOM FOOT
A GP surgery in Camden is to close four years after being taken over by the biggest health company in the United States.
The Camden Road Surgery, a GP practice for almost 100 years, will shut down on April 13. Health campaigners say it should act as a cautionary tale for policy-makers aiming to reform the NHS.
Staff have been given their marching orders and 4,700 patients are being uprooted and told to sign up at practices as far away as Highgate.
It follows the failure of private operators The Practice Plc to negotiate an extension to a lease with the building’s owners or to secure alternative premises nearby.
The company took over the surgery last April from American private health operators UnitedHealth UK, which controversially outbid local doctors to win the contract to run three practices in Camden in 2008.
There was a flood of protests from doctors and patients when the deal was agreed. The Camden Primary Care Trust was criticised at the time for overlooking historic connections in favour of the best possible financial deal offered by companies capable of shaving costs by running multiple surgeries. The comparison was made to the way a supermarket can hoover up business from small, independent shops.
Labour Holborn and St Pancras MP and former Labour Health Secretary Frank Dobson said: “Camden Road was an excellent practice when it was run by local doctors.
“Then it was farmed out to UnitedHealth, who promised improvements and to run it cheaper. They didn’t fulfil all their obligations.
“Then, without consultation, they sold the franchise on to the practice. Now, lo and behold, the practice is closing.
“This is what you get with marketisation and this is exactly what the Tories want everywhere.”
Crucially, the freehold is held by Dr Robert Harbord and his wife Jilian, who was formerly the practice manager.
NHS officials said they had spoken to them on “several occasions” but added: “They do not wish to renew the lease as they are returning the building to residential use.”
The couple are held in very high regard around Camden Town after decades of loyal service to generations of NHS patients at the surgery. They were unavailable for comment this week but friends who spoke to the New Journal said they were unsettled about the way UnitedHealth were given the contract four years ago and what had happened since. One source said they felt ousted from their own surgery.
A list of 4,700 patients will now be “cleaned” and then “dispersed” or re-allocated to other surgeries, including James Wigg Practice in Kentish Town. James Wigg partner Dr Roy MacGregor said he could take some of the extra patients but only if the NHS paid for more staff at the practice.
In a letter to NHS bosses, Labour Cantelowes ward councillor Phil Jones said: “I am completely opposed to closure of Camden Road surgery and extremely concerned about the thousands of Camden residents affected by this.
“This will be a massive blow to many patients and I’m afraid I disagree that there is sufficient capacity at other local practices.”
Camden Road patient Martha Dunkley said: “I am a long-term patient going back 30 years and I remember UnitedHealth saying they were going to protect this place.
“Now all the staff are getting fired and it is closing. I have various chronic conditions. I am 64. Dr Harbord was my NHS doctor for 15 to 20 years. I could not fault him.”
The North Central London NHS sector trust, which organises funding for health services in Camden, insist the borough’s practices have space to take Camden Road’s patients.
A spokeswoman from The Practice said: “The lease on the property expires in April and, although the PCT and The Practice have both worked tirelessly to negotiate an extension to this lease, unfortunately the landlord has decided not to grant an extension.”
Camden Road has been a surgery since the 1920s and was run for 60 years by Dr Abraham Isaac Silverman.
The last Labour government introduced legislation allowing private companies, such as UnitedHealth, and The Practice, to profit from the NHS by bidding for contracts to run GP surgeries.
Dr Paddy Glackin, who represents doctors in Camden as secretary of Londonwide Medical Committees (LMC), said: “I don’t think there is a single private operator that has seen out the full length of its contract to run a GP surgery in inner London. It is essentially for the same reason: they cannot deliver the practice at NHS prices.”
A UnitedHealth spokeswoman said yesterday (Wednesday) the Camden Road Surgery was “nothing to do with us anymore”.