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CCGs are the core of the new NHS – but are they running the game?

 The emerging clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) embody a core principle of the new NHS: that commissioning decisions should be made locally, by clinicians, and be focused on community-based care. According to Andrew Lansley, the defining feature of the NHS reform is a “shift of power” from national and regional organisations to local ones, of which the CCGs are the most important.

The role of CCGs in the new NHS is both structural and dynamic. They will commission healthcare at a local level, spending £60 billion of the £80 billion NHS commissioning budget, and will hold together the relationship between patients and providers. They will also work with providers and business partners to redesign local services, and those new solutions will spread through the NHS. The CCGs will thus be the drivers of healthcare innovation.

However, given that GPs are meant to lead the CCGs, the concerns raised by many GPs about the new system are significant. Will CCGs really have the opportunity to improve care, or will they simply have to drive through spending cuts? Will they really be run by clinicians or by the private sector? Is the heart of the new NHS dynamic and responsive, or divided and unstable?

Development of CCGs

In July 2010, the white paper Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS spoke of “putting GP commissioning on a statutory basis” through the development of ‘GP consortia’. These new organisations, to which every GP practice would belong, would run each local health economy: they would contract providers, partner with local authorities, and be accountable to patients and the public for outcomes. They would be authorised by a new national body, the NHS Commissioning Board, which would also commission GP services.

The initial reaction of the GP community was positive. Being in the driving seat of a fast-evolving NHS, able to redesign local services for their patients, appealed strongly. However, the codification of the reforms in the Health and Social Care Bill led to growing opposition among GPs. Issues raised included the power of the Board to direct GP consortia and the requirement that consortia embrace provider competition. Above all, the deepening economic crisis made GPs fear their role would be one of rationing services, not finding solutions.

The Government’s ‘listening exercise’ did not resolve the concerns about competition and rationing, but it led to a stronger assertion of the autonomy of the consortia. An important change concerned the scope of clinical representation: the new ‘clinical commissioning groups’ were defined as including specialist consultants and nurses as well as GPs. That was a step towards the ‘integrated care’ that the BMA had highlighted as a priority.

Breaking the waves

The NHS Commissioning Board Authority, set up in October 2011, has the primary responsibility of putting in place a nationwide system of CCGs to replace the PCTs by April 2013. A total of 212 CCGs have been approved to go through the authorisation process in four waves: 35 in wave 1 (commencing in June 2012), 70 in wave 2 (July), 67 in wave 3 (September) and 40 in wave 4 (October).

The authorisation process is designed, according to the Board, to ensure that CCGs have a “strong clinical and multi-professional focus”; have meaningful patient engagement; have credible plans to “deliver the QIPP challenge”; have proper governance arrangements; are set up to collaborate with other CCGs, local authorities and the Board; and have strong leadership.

It has not always been a smooth road, however. The Board, concerned at the prospect of CCGs competing for providers of commissioning support, announced it would take over the appointment of leaders to Commissioning Support Services. One CCG has already protested that its authorisation has been delayed by this.

Another issue is lack of GP leadership. Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said that only “about 25 GPs” in England were actively interested in leading local commissioning. The reason, she said, was that the “transactional” aspects of commissioning as a business did not appeal to them. 

GP-led commissioning

CCGs will be responsible for commissioning community health services (including mental health care and services for children and elderly people) and hospital care (both A&E and elective care). The NHSCB will be responsible for commissioning primary care as well as pharmaceutical and dental services. Local authorities will be responsible for public health, with the NHSCB covering certain aspects.

Collaborative working between CCGs and the other statutory organisations involved in healthcare is anticipated, but the model is not one of top-down control – rather, it is one of business partnership. The NHSCB can provide assistance or support to CCG commissioning; this may take the form of extra funding or access to staff and other resources. CCGs have a duty to co-operate with local authorities in supporting aspects of public health, including child health and mental health.

CCGs are able to buy in support from external organisations, including the CSUs whose development is currently being governed by the NHSCB. For more details on the CSU landscape. CCGs can also buy in support from the private and voluntary sectors, but will retain control of commissioning decisions. These relationships will differentiate CCGs, as some are keener than others to engage in private sector partnerships.

Commissioning of hospital services is also likely to differentiate CCGs, especially as many hospital trusts are facing financial challenges as they shift to foundation trust status. CCGs will influence the development of FTs through their commissioning strategies – for example, they may promote private providers both within and beyond FT-provided services. The acute sector will have a voice in CCGs, though its representatives on a CCG board cannot come from the local area.

The GP-led nature of CCGs is variable. Fewer than 50% of current CCG board members are GPs, and there is potential for the management of local commissioning to be outsourced. CCG boards should include a non-practice nurse and a specialist consultant, but local government are excluded.

Life after April 2013

Securing GP ‘buy-in’ remains an issue for the NHS reforms, but those GPs who support the reforms have been most active in developing CCGs. The CCG boards thus represent a more pro-market segment of the GP profession. Pharma companies may find that their CCG customers and GP customers require a nuanced and varied approach.

Each CCG will have a different mix of GPs, hospital clinicians and financial or management specialists. It will also be dealing with local health issues, which are also impacting on local government and the local Healthwatch body. Every CCG will have to find its own balance between clinical outcomes and economic success.

CCGs will also face a tension between the ‘autonomy’ stressed by the NHSCB and the need for partnership with other stakeholders, within and outside the NHS. Will this tension lead to fragmentation and paralysis, or to dynamic innovation driven by the local synergy of clinical and commercial talent? Whatever the answer, the CCGs hold the key to the success or failure of the new NHS.