The man to your left is Sheldon Mills. For no genuine economic or State cost reasons, Mr Mills last January referred the Poole and Bournemouth Dorset Trust hospital merger to the Mergers & Competition Commission. The OFT itself admits that the merger not going ahead would be unlikely to offer patient benefits. Poole hospital is in dire financial straits and needs the merger to happen quickly. Why is a supposedly independent watchdog behaving in such a political manner? The Slog investigates.
Poole hospital NHS Foundation Trust is being formally investigated by Health sector regulator Monitor amid concerns over its finances. The Trust says it could face a deficit if a planned merger with the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch trust failed to go ahead, and a spokesperson added, “This is no surprise, our board of directors has long maintained that without the merger, the trust faces significant financial pressure.” Yes indeed, if you get only 30% of all NHS funds in the first place (while the GPs get 65%) then money problems will occur. It’s the sort of entirely foreseen ramification upon which Jeremy *unt thrives. Poole hospital, by the way, has running costs 7% lower than the national average.
But this bit riled me more than usual: the proposed merger is the subject of a separate investigation because the Office of Fair Trading referred the deal to the Competition Commission over concerns about allowing two competing trusts to combine.
My first question is this: who authorised the referral to the MCC? The answer is, my friends, one Sheldon Mills – the OFT’s Director of Mergers. The OFT is supposedly a ‘politically independent’ organisation (funny how this one wasn’t put to the sword by George Osborne) but Mr Mills’s statements and writings suggest he is anything but independent:
‘Preserving choice and competition can lead to better quality clinical outcomes for patients, as well as providing greater value for money for the taxpayer and commissioners’
That is pure Lansleyism, and an ex cathedra observation that would be contested by the majority of hospital health practitioners. And guess what? Sheldon Mills got his just reward for this ridiculous referral: he has just been promoted to Director of Policy. His brief is now to be responsible for competition, markets and consumer policy. Before he joined the OFT, Mr Mills worked as a solicitor in private practice advising on mergers and related transactions. So then, no economic theology in his cv, eh?
How did a referral to the OFT come about, and who raised it? Was the referral – given the obviously dire nature of Poole’s finances – just the insistence of an idiot, or the machinations of a politician? Go to this post at the CCG site for some damning evidence suggesting foul play.
What The Slog can report meanwhile is that Mills told the Westminster Health Forum on 29 November 2012 that policy changes introduced over recent years meant NHS trusts are “acting in one sense as independent entities in a market based healthcare economy”. Nice trick, this one: pretend a philanthropic social health provider is a private company in a highly-competitive market, and that invents a rationale for muscling in on their affairs. Nothing like a self-fulfilling prophecy to move things along, eh? Classic Lansley: starve the hospitals, then look shocked about the need to privatise them.
And muscle in Sheldon Mills has – big time. The OFT has been given the go-ahead not just to adjudicate on Trust mergers, but to oversee them as well. And guess who will be Mr Big? Why, Sheldon Mills of course.
If the merger – already held up since May 2012 – is blocked, Poole will go into administration. And once more the oleaginous Uriah Hunt will grin and go, “I told you so”. Never in the history of political reform was there an agenda quite so brazen as this one.
My second, much more simple, question as a marketing professional goes back to Mills’s Keith Joseph episode from last November: in what conceivable way – except in the warped minds of neocon Thatcherite zealots – do two NHS hospitals compete for health business? Show me where and how in the process of GP referral, varying expertise levels and specialisations the patient ever exercises a choice. How often does it happen – three times a year in a population close to two million? If a patient has brain cancer and Bournemouth’s stereotactic unit is better, will the patient opt for Poole because it’s nearer and the food’s better?
I did think that the NHS internal market had finally been laid to rest: obviously not. Why not? It is complete and unadulterated bollocks on a par with Ronald Reagan and his trickle-down wealth. But just leaving this aside, put together, there is no way on Earth Poole and Bournemouth Trusts would represent anything near the ‘share’ of the UK ‘health market’ that Newscorp enjoys in the UK media market – especially the newspaper sector.
WARNING: Holding your breath while waiting for Jeremy Hunt to allow through an MCC referral about Newscorp is bad for your health.