Cluster time

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Despite the ongoing criticism of the Health Bill as it passes through the House of Lords, structural changes are still happening at ground level. Dr Thoreya Swage outlines the timescale for changes as PCT clusters switch responsibilities to CCGs.

The momentum of reform of the National Health Service in England continues to gather pace. Following a four month hiatus while the wise and the good of the NHS Future Forum pondered and produced recommendations for the adjustment of the Bill, the DH published further guidance on the developing role of the Primary Care Trust (PCT) clusters.

Although the 151 PCTs have been squeezed into fifty-one PCT clusters in preparation for their demise in April 2013, it seems that they have a vital part to play in the development of the emerging Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

This guidance or ‘shared operating model for PCT clusters’ has been produced by the mandarins at the DH to ensure that the commissioning landscape is as consistent and smooth as possible in time for the takeover by the CCGs. This is so that the nascent NHS Commissioning Board inherits a robust enough system to take account of further developments and improvements in healthcare in early 2013.


A shared model

There are six main functions or ways of working for the shared operating model for the clusters. These have been identified where consistency of approach is considered to be of importance and they are listed as commissioning development, financial and operational issues, ensuring quality, emergency planning, development of providers as Foundation Trusts and communications.


CCG development

The most important function is the preparation of CCGs for authorisation as soon as possible following the successful passage of the Health Bill through Parliament. The process of authorisation to become fully fledged commissioners is due to begin in the second half of 2012.

Although this is a year away, CCGs can commence their preparations now using a self diagnostic tool – an interactive computer-based assessment that helps them to determine their capability in six domains and identify their development needs.

The areas covered include:

  • A clear clinical focus of the CCG commissioning plans to include tackling health inequalities and improving primary care
  • Demonstration of meaningful involvement of patients and the wider community
  • A plan for development that is clear and credible which, in particular, delivers the QIPP (quality, innovation, productivity and prevention) agenda
  • Capacity and capability of the CCG, i.e. robust constitutional and governance arrangements which enable the CCG to commission care effectively and ensure financial control
  • Collaborative arrangements for working with other CCGs, local authorities and the NHS Commissioning Board
  • Capacity and capability of the CCG leadership which ensures effective working.

The tool helps the CCGs identify priority development areas which form the basis of the developmental plan paving the way to full authorisation.

To support all this work CCGs will receive £2 per head from the PCT clusters as well as extra management resource to help the groups hone their commissioning skills and capability.

CCGs experiencing difficulty in defining their boundaries will have guidance from PCT clusters on how to resolve this. PCT clusters also have the unenviable task of engaging the reluctant practices that so far have not participated in their local CCG discussions, with the aim of being part of a viable commissioning group by October.


Separating commissioning functions

All through the last quarter of this year a very detailed exercise is being carried out by PCT clusters to identify and segregate the service areas that CCGs and the NHS Commissioning Board will be responsible for. Although CCGs will be commissioning acute, mental health, community and ambulance care there are other services that PCTs currently commission which will need to be transferred to the Board.

Services such as GP and other primary care contractor groups – primary dental care, pharmacy and optical services – secondary dental care, prison, specialised and military health services are set to go under the umbrella of the NHS Commissioning Board. Even though the contracts for GP services are held by another body, the CCGs are expected to have an input into primary care development and improvement.


Quality assurance

A vital component of the commissioning process is ensuring the quality of healthcare. Practices may have been involved to a greater or lesser degree in various quality assurance processes in the past. However, CCGs are required to take on board these responsibilities seriously.

There is a whole raft of procedures and measures including delivery of better health outcomes for patients, meeting the Care Quality Commission (CQC) requirements for safety and quality of services, standard contracts, the NHS Operating Framework, professional guidance and other relevant requirements that CCGs need to get to grips with.

This could potentially be a vulnerable time for the development of the CCGs if attention wanders and serious patient safety incidents are not acted on promptly. Clinical governance processes must therefore be extra secure.


Budgets and responsibilities

Over the next year or so there will be a period of dual functioning and handover as the CCGs mature and the PCT clusters delegate more and more responsibilities until April 2013. The handing over of the baton has started now with PCT clusters having identified a “clear percentage of budgets” to CCG pioneers or pathfinders in August and plans for future delegation of budgets set by October.

Sandwiched in between will be the agreement on which mental health and community services will be subject to ‘Any Qualified Provider’ (AQP). This policy is set to be implemented from April next year when GPs can refer to providers of certain services eligible for AQP from a list of approved organisations, including the private sector, drawn up by the DH.

A review of commissioning support required by CCGs has already been undertaken in July with clear arrangements agreed by the end of the year.

In March next year, CCGs will be required to enable the development of the local health and wellbeing boards supported by their PCT clusters – health and wellbeing boards being the mechanism for joint health and social care planning and commissioning locally.

Meanwhile, individual PCTs will continue to carry out their statutory functions through the clusters until their abolition in April 2013. The statutory functions include contract monitoring, ensuring that providers meet their QIPP obligations and other statutory requirements, for example, safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.

The big challenge for CCGs will begin when they will be required to lead the next planning round for 2012/13. This begins in the latter part of this year and is a function previously undertaken by the PCTs.

This will involve doing a needs analysis, identifying local inequalities, understanding demand and activity for local services, negotiating and setting priorities with partners and developing the local strategic vision. Handover of commissioning functions will continue with CCGs being an active participant in the subsequent contract negotiations and agreement.


The outside world

It is apparent that despite the pause for reflection on the proposed changes in the NHS earlier this year, the momentum for restructuring and dissolving healthcare organisations continues. The picture remains a little confusing however, as CCGs are in varying stages of development and maturity and it is not clear that all will be truly viable by the tight deadline set for October.

What is clear is that that work of commissioning and delivering healthcare has to go on and now is a good time to find out who the key movers are within the CCGs.

It is at this point in time when the developmental needs of CCGs will be uppermost and it is here that pharma can provide some input. Skills and knowledge in leadership development and highlighting therapeutic areas where evidence-based care really works are two such possibilities.

CCGs will be keen to smooth patient pathways across primary and secondary care and nowhere is this more pertinent than in prescribing effectively. Delegated prescribing budgets are now very real for CCGs and they will be keen to ensure value for money and improvements in care for their patients. This provides a good opportunity for pharma companies to demonstrate the effectiveness of their drugs in specific disease areas.

On the commissioning front, by December of this year, CCGs and PCT clusters will have had to agree what commissioning support they need to carry out this function. Given the requirement to reduce costs, commissioning skills and expertise may actually be thin on the ground within CCGs.

Bearing in mind that effective commissioning will be judged by outcomes achieved as outlined in the NHS Outcomes Framework, pharma is well placed to demonstrate how their products can meet the requirements of domain 1: preventing premature deaths, domain 2: enhancing the quality of life of people with long-term conditions and domain 3: aiding the recovery of people who have an acute illness or injury.

The next few months will be busy while the NHS sorts itself out structurally. Once the picture begins to clear, pharma will need to engage with the new clinically skilled commissioners who now have the financial responsibility for making decisions about healthcare.

 Dr Thoreya Swage was formerly an NHS clinician and a senior manager in various NHS organisations covering acute and primary care. She has expertise in commissioning health services and is currently working for a number of NHS organisations, including DH agencies, to develop a more commercial approach to the commissioning of healthcare.