SIX organisations have been shortlisted as possible franchise managers of Huntingdon s Hinchingbrooke Hospital – but there are doubts about whether the cutting-edge process will ever go ahead. On the list of organisations selected for further discussions

SIX organisations have been shortlisted as possible franchise managers of Huntingdon's Hinchingbrooke Hospital - but there are doubts about whether the cutting-edge process will ever go ahead.

On the list of organisations selected for further discussions with the NHS are Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge - the only public-sector body to qualify - and five companies from the private sector.

But all of them will be judged against a benchmark being set by the present management, which is already delivering a day-to-day savings on Hinchingbrooke's £92million-a-year budget.

And what could completely scupper private sector involvement is the 2007 hospital rescue plan devised by NHS Cambridgeshire, the county's primary care trust, which pays most of the bills.

The plan was based on a reduction of 20-25 per cent in hospital activities that could be carried out cheaper in the community - in health centres, GPs' surgeries and patients' homes.

This is the level of service NHS Cambridgeshire expects to be able to afford in a cash-strapped future (it has predicted a £100m budget shortfall by 2014).

However, an NHS source has told The Hunts Post that the savings at Hinchingbrooke may be undeliverable and any preferred bidder would struggle to meet the demands for savings.

According to the East of England Strategic Health Authority, which is running the franchise process, the pre-qualification bids have been constructed on the basis of Hinchingbrooke's current workload which, far from being a reduction on 2007 levels of activity, has actually seen an increase.

The SHA also wants to see the £38.9million historic debt reduced.

However, it insists that none of the bids will succeed unless they are better than the Hinchingbrooke benchmark.

"If the potential partners do not achieve the overall criteria set by the tender and no bid is acceptable, then Hinchingbrooke would continue in its present form in the short term," a spokesman said. "However, the current arrangements at Hinchingbrooke are unsustainable, so a new partner would continue to be sought."

NHS Cambridgeshire, which last year provided £70million of Hinchingbrooke's budget, cannot afford to continue to pay at the same rate and the hospital's costs must fall.

John Leslie, acting chief executive of NHS Cambridgeshire, told The Hunts Post that the franchise bidders have been told they must honour the 2007 commitments.

"As with all other hospitals we monitor activity levels and work with them to ensure that they provide good quality sustainable levels of activity, in line with patient need and levels of funding," he said. "We will have the same conversation with any preferred bidder for the Hinchingbrooke franchise.

"Our contract with Hinchingbrooke was for £68.4m in 2008/09. There is flexibility in how we fund all services, but it is clear that in future years we may be more restricted on how flexible we can be.

"We are currently reviewing our strategic plan in the light of the new financial outlook and we will be sharing this with any preferred bidder."

When initial expressions of interest were sought last October, David Worskett, director of the NHS Partners Network, to which four of the five private-sector organisations belong, said the conditions were so restrictive that they "appear to lack commercial reality".

Yesterday (Tuesday), however, he had changed his view. "I'm extremely pleased that the discussions have led to significant private sector interest. I'm glad to have been proved wrong.

"But where it goes from here is a different matter."

If the seven-year franchise goes ahead with any of the private bidders, it will be the first private sector takeover of a NHS district general hospital and could become the template for the rest of the country.