By Ben Trent
Simon Stevens is set to take over as chief executive of National Health Service (NHS) England in April 2014.
Highlighting the prospective plan for the privatisation of health under his tenure, Stevens has called for the “opening up” of the NHS and “reshaping our care system”. He wants to “draw back the veil between what those of us working inside health know about it and what the people on the receiving end… get to see.”
NHS England is responsible for the budget, planning, and day-to-day operation of health services in England. It came into being as a result of the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act 2012, which is aimed at laying the framework for the wholesale privatisation of the NHS.
Stevens’s CV includes work as a health care manager (1988-1997) and as a Labour Councillor for Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth (1998-2002). At the time, Lambeth, which once enjoyed a reputation as a militant Labour council was busy implementing New Labour pro-market policies and outsourcing public services. It was the first local authority to commission a Private Finance Initiative.
Stevens then became Prime Minister Tony Blair’s health policy advisor (2001-2004), having worked closely with Health Minister Alan Milburn on the NHS Plan 2000. This plan was described as “the biggest changes to healthcare in England since the NHS was formed in 1948” and centred on the strengthening of the “internal market”, new consultant contracts and an agreement between the NHS and the private sector to use private facilities.
These activities enabled Stevens, like many Labour ministers and officials, to make the seamless transition into the private sector. He became president of UnitedHealth Europe and then went on to take a senior position in the parent company situated in the United States, UnitedHealth Group.
UnitedHealth Group is the largest healthcare organisation in the US, with net earnings of US$5 billion. It is ranked at number 17 in the Fortune 500. The corporation was involved in a lawsuit during Simon Stevens’s tenure taken out by the American Medical Association, which accused it of faulty data claims that meant practitioners were underpaid and patients overcharged. UnitedHealth was ordered to pay to US$350 million in compensation due to what the New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo referred to as “consumer fraud”.
Another settlement in 2009 saw UnitedHealth pay out US$50 million to replace its outdated database system, which had been leaving patients short of up to 28 percent for claims due to inaccurate data.
In a report by Stevens last year, he claimed that the Obama administration would be able to slash US$500 billion in Medicare funding over the next 10 years by utilising aggressive measures in the provision of medical care for the elderly and impoverished. Stevens’ claim that this represented a “third way” to cut costs while improving service and providing so-called transparency to the consumer is nothing but a veiled attempt to justify a much deeper gutting of public healthcare.
The language utilised is one of business, not of care, and integral to business is profit, as seen in the year after the recession officially began. 2009 saw UnitedHealth under Stevens’ management make a hefty US$845 million profit, 28 percent higher than the previous year. This contrasts with up to 50 percent of all bankruptcies in the US being down to people being unable to afford medical bills.
While the giants of healthcare rake in record profits, increasing numbers of those who are supposed to receive the care are unable to afford it and suffer the consequences of the current crisis of capitalism.
It is no wonder then that Stevens’ involvement in the early days of privatisation under New Labour and the US health care giant has given the Conservative-Liberal/Democrat coalition confidence to appoint him as their leading figure to continue the assault on the NHS.
The enactment of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 has set the precedent for the buying up of major NHS assets by private companies and increasing the market share of healthcare by the private sector, including 12 major US insurance companies, UnitedHealth being one of them.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has heralded Simon Stevens as a “great reformer”.
Stevens has also been listed as the second most powerful figure in the NHS by the Health Service Journal.
These glowing accolades highlight the danger posed to the NHS. In a sop to public opposition, and realising that much bigger rewards are at stake, Stevens has reportedly opted to take a 10 percent cut in his salary, meaning he will draw £189,000 as opposed to the £211,000 taken by his predecessor. And though Stevens is supposed to divest his shares to take up the position, Malcolm Grant, the chairman of the NHS, is set to review this stipulation after a year.
In the seven months since the Health and Social Care Act came into effect, nearly 70 percent of the £1.5billion worth of contracts for NHS services have been awarded by clinical commissioning groups to private companies, a new study shows. At the same time NHS England Medical Director Bruce Keogh, who infamously called for the NHS to be run like high-street retailers PC World and Dixons, declared that the private sector could carry out operations to relieve pressure on hospitals should there a cold snap this winter.