A group of campaigners that includes Professor Stephen Hawking has been given the green light to challenge a government policy in court, which, they argue, could lead to privatisation of the NHS.
Campaingers – including the group JR4NHS - are concerned over lack of transparency and primary legislation regarding the planned introduction of accountable care organisations (ACOs).
Under health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plans, ACOs – which are to be comprised of partners from the NHS, local authorities, private and third sectors companies – will be handed huge chunks of area budgets to handle health and social care services.
However, critics fear they will provide the means for stealth privatisation of the health service, as they will hand over greater control of services to commercial entities.
In the very least, campaigners argue that an Act of Parliament is needed to allow MPs and Lords to consider the proposals before they are implemented and any changes to regulations are made, which is not currently on the cards.
The High Court has now given permission for the judicial review to proceed to a full hearing "as soon as possible" after 14 March 2018, offering the chance for greater scrutiny of the plans. This follows NHS England’s recent confirmation of a public consultation over the planned creation of ACOs.
The Independent quoted former consultant eye surgeon Dr Colin Hutchinson, who chairs Doctors for the NHS, as saying: "These radical changes will eventually affect everybody in England. There needs to be a sound legal basis before 10-year contracts worth billions of pounds are outsourced to these new organisations."
Author and NHS doctor Rachel Clarke also told the paper: “When long-term NHS contracts are being rewritten covertly, behind closed doors, it is impossible not to fear their potential impact on our health service. If ACOs are no threat to the NHS as we know it, then why are they not being talked about openly?”
However, in an emailed statement to PharmaTimes, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "We strongly resist the misleading claims in this action; it is irresponsible scaremongering to suggest that Accountable Care Organisations are being used to support privatisation and harm the fundamental principles of the NHS.
“The NHS will remain a taxpayer-funded system free at the point of use; ACOs are simply about making care more joined-up between different health and care organisations.
"Our consultation on changes to support ACOs is entirely appropriate and lawful. We believe it is right that local NHS leaders and clinicians have the autonomy to decide the best solutions to improve care for the patients they know best — and any significant local changes are always subject to public consultation and due legal process.”
Whilst giving a green light for the judicial review the judge decided not to cap the costs that the claimants might have to pay the government and NHS England if the case is lost.
“In view of the large amounts already spent and claimed by the government and NHS England in opposing the case every inch of the way, we are giving careful consideration to next steps on this at the moment,” said JR4NHS.