Halting the investigation of preferred providers in the NHS does appear political as King’s Fund colleague John Appleby has said. It also illustrates the risky territory the policy would take the NHS into.
Preferred providers are by their nature preferred, but for what reasons? As a patient and taxpayer, I would hope that they were preferred for their ability to deliver exemplary care, not for the nature of their ownership. The latter would ideology ahead of patient care and indeed safety and would hardly be defensible should a patient choose to challenge it in a court. “M’Lud, the patient is complaining the operation went awry because she was treated at a twice failed preferred provider.” I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that!
This isn’t really about NHS or not NHS, it is really about clinical and service quality, which is what the Department of Health should be focusing on. Things are only going to get worse for publicly funded NHS provision in England anyway over the next few years.
I am also think there may be a lesson from European law and so-called emanations of the state that are automatically assumed to have a dominant market position, and are therefore enjoined from behaving in certain ways. I am reminded of a German case at the ECJ that found that the state cannot be a monopoly supplier of a service if it manifestly is unable to meet public demand for a service — in other words, you can’t freeze out new market entrants if the sole purpose of the policy is to protect state-funded incumbents.
As for the UK’s NHS, I think I’d want to know if my local provider was a failing preferred provider. I think any Health Department anywhere would not want a policy that looked the other way. Any willing provider should be up the quality standards that would make them preferred providers; anything less is bad policy.