Serco may face fines over Suffolk NHS contract

Image caption Serco's care co-ordination centre in Ipswich provides a central point for patient referrals

Serco may face fines over its community health service in Suffolk after NHS commissioners found it was failing to meet key targets.

The multinational private company took on the £140m contract to run community health services in Suffolk last autumn.

It has been issued with a "performance notice" and a review into potential safety issues has been launched.

The company says there has been a period of transition but insists it is delivering a high level of care.

Serco is one of the companies bidding for NHS contracts, worth £6bn, currently out to tender in England.

According to unpublished figures seen by the BBC, Serco's community intervention teams are failing to meet urgent four-hour response targets - for nurses and therapists to reach patients at home.

It was also failing to meet non-emergency 72-hour targets.

The report, by clinical commissioners in Suffolk, also reveals delays in producing care plans for palliative patients and carrying out health assessments for children in care.

The commissioners have raised a contract query and issued Serco with a performance notice. A quality review is also under way into "potential patient safety issues", including training, staff capacity and workloads.

The chief officer of the East and West Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Groups, Julian Herbert, says Serco has until the end of the year to meet the eight performance targets, or face fines in early 2014.

"Some of Serco's speed of response is not as we'd like. And we've picked up areas about care leader availability and care plans being in place," he said.

"There are areas where the staff levels aren't as we'd like them to be. Serco is looking to resolve those. It gives Serco a chance to put things right.

"If they aren't put right, we then get to the point where we start financially penalising them, by taking money away from them if they don't deliver," he added.

The commissioners say they are generally satisfied with the service and are working with Serco on a remedial action plan.

The BBC has heard concerns from some nurses working for Serco that staffing shortages mean some community intervention teams in Suffolk don't have cover at night, resulting in some patients being admitted to hospital.

Sharon Colclough, director of community services for Serco Health, says while there are some staff vacancies, the community teams are delivering a high level of care.

"Some teams have some vacancies and we are giving them additional support at this moment, but every service is delivering the kind of care that we expect them to. We are recruiting [people] to posts now and we're supporting staff as much as we can.

"We're coming out of six months of transition and we're trying to embed the changes. I'm not saying that we have got it perfectly right but we are absolutely committed to getting it right," she said.

Serco has invested £4m in the service, including new computer systems and a 24-hour care co-ordination centre in Ipswich which provides a central point for all patient referrals.

Serco signed a deal to run Suffolk Community Health for three years for £140m.

This was £10m less than the former NHS trust's best price. Serco has made a loss in the first year, and has told the BBC it doesn't expect to make a profit during the life of the contract.

Serco is also bidding for the biggest contract in the history of the NHS. It is one of nine providers shortlisted for a five-year, £800m contract to provide older people's services in Cambridgeshire. The winner of that tender will be announced next summer.

Across England, 160 NHS contracts worth a total of £6bn are currently out to tender.

Listen to File on 4, on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on Tuesday 12 November and on Sunday 17 November at 17:00 GMT.

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