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Pensioner wins over a US healthcare giant

Pam Smith wins a court battle against United Health Europe (UHE), the British arm of America's biggest healthcare company and spoils their plan to run a GP surgery.// The company has been forced to reapply for the tender to provide family doctors for the people of Langwith, on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border.

The North Eastern Derbyshire primary care trust has been ordered to start the tendering process from scratch, after the ruling that NHS patients had not been properly consulted, by the judges, Lord Justices Keene and May.

"Probability is not enough," Lord Justice May said yesterday. "The simple fact is that the primary care trust had a duty to consult and they did not properly perform it." He said that, if consultation had taken place, the trust "might well have been negotiating with another bidder".

“The sooner the arrangements for GP services in this part of Derbyshire are sorted out lawfully and finally, the better for everyone” said Lord Justice Keene, Appeal Court judge.

This ruling reverses a high court decision in June, according to which, there had not been enough of public consultation, but that UHE would probably have won anyway.

The pressure group Keep Our NHS Public acknowledged the result and said it was a big setback for government plans to allow private companies control of parts of primary care.

Ms Smith, 67, a former hosiery worker and Labour councillor, who was awarded full costs, said after the ruling: "This just shows what local people power can do. It was real case of David and Goliath. I'm on a high. I would love to be a fly on [health secretary] Patricia Hewitt's wall now - she keeps saying patients will have a choice; well, we've made our choice. United Health would only have taken profits. We will keep our NHS public, not private."

Alex Nunns of Keep Our NHS Public said: "This is a complete and utter victory. It is a model for other communities havin g this forced on them in the government's drive to privatise the NHS."

However, according to the Department of Health, whether sufficient consultation had taken place was the only concern in the case and not the principle of whether private healthcare providers should be involved in primary care.

A spokesman said: "Today's decision means that the PCT should go through its tender process again and consult on the criteria used. It has no wider implications for the NHS or for government plans to introduce new providers in primary care."

Plans to permit private healthcare providers to supply GPs in deprived areas where it has been difficult to approve adequate family doctors has been outlined in the January white paper. Two pilot projects are going on.

A statement from the trust said it welcomed the resolution of the dispute. "The court of appeal has clarified the way forward for the PCT to put in place the permanent GP provision the patients in Creswell and Langwith deserve," it said.

Richard Smith, the chief executive of UHE (whose vice-president is Simon Stevens, formerly Tony Blair's senior health policy adviser), said the firm would still provide primary care in another part of Derbyshire. "We believe that we can make a significant contribution in the region to reducing health inequalities."

Ms Smith's lawyer, Richard Stein, said: "We are pleased that the court of appeal has decided that not only was the PCT acting unlawfully when it selected UHE without involving patients, but that it will now have to go back and involve the patients."

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