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Shifting ownership: venture capital firm acquires seven East London GP surgeries

A venture capital firm has been revealed as the buyer of seven East London GP surgeries which were put up for sale last year.

In August 2023, US medical insurance giant Centene announced it planned to sell Operose Health, a company that has owned nearly 60 NHS GP practices since 2021.

The chain of practices includes The Loxford Surgery in Ilford, five others in Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, as well as a surgery in Barking run under a short-term “caretaking” contract.

NHS North East London, which oversees GP services in East London, has now named the potential buyer as HCRG Care Group, a company that provides a wide range of health and care services to the NHS and councils.

HCRG Care Group – which turned over £269million in 2022/23 – is ultimately owned by venture capital firm Twenty20 Capital, run by Tristan Ramus and Ian Munro.

Centene bought Operose Health in 2021 but announced the sale last year after reportedly struggling to make the level of profit it hoped.

Health campaigner Carol Saunders, of North East London Save Our NHS said her group is “gobsmacked” that NHS GP surgeries are being exchanged “like pawns in a game of chess”.

She added: “First they were snatched by a US health corporation. Now they’ve been taken over by HCRG, which is 75% owned by a private equity company that apparently specialises in ‘temporary employment agency activities’.”

Carol suggested that HCRG Care Group would attempt to “drive business” towards its temporary employment agencies.

She urged NHS North East London to act in the best interests of patients and avoid “rubberstamping” the practices’ change of control.

HCRG Care Group has been approached for comment but has not responded at the time of publication.

A director at NHS North East London, William Cunningham-Davis, later said that although Operose had “issues” with one or two members of staff, the company had “robust systems in place”.

NHS North East London, which took over the commissioning of GP health services for the whole of East London in July 2022, has said it must “consent” to the change of ownership.

It says it will now carry out a “due diligence process” to check that HCRG Care Group and Twenty20 Capital are of “good standing”.

The announcement adds: “We will also seek assurance that the change of control would not affect service provision and that patients would not see any difference in their GP practice, so that patients will still access care in the same way and continue to see the same practice teams.”

A final decision on whether NHS North East London consents to the practices being sold to HCRG Care Group will be made by its North East London Primary Care Contracts Sub Group.

Chief executive of NHS North East London Zina Etheridge has said the commissioning group – which makes key decisions about commissioning GP services in East London – will meet in public due to the “significant degree of interest” in the sale.

Until 2023, all of the commissioning group’s meetings were held in public, but NHS North East London now refuses all requests for information about its decision-making, claiming it is commercial confidentiality.

However, other London NHS bodies, such as NHS North Central London, continue to publish reports on their GP commissioning decisions.

Centene’s purchase of a large number of NHS surgeries sparked concerns about the “privatisation” of UK health services and resulted in an unsuccessful High Court challenge of NHS decision-making in February 2022.

Later that year, a BBC Panorama programme alleged that Operose was putting profits before proper care by hiring less qualified staff, such as physician associates, to do the work of GPs.

NHS North East London has been contacted for comment.

A public webinar about the change in ownership held today (24 January) at 7 pm.

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