THE spectre of private sector management of Hinchingbrooke Hospital will be raised again next week when health chiefs brief Huntingdonshire councillors. Franchising management of the hospital to save the £1million a year that the hospital trust s board is

THE spectre of private sector management of Hinchingbrooke Hospital will be raised again next week when health chiefs brief Huntingdonshire councillors.

Franchising management of the hospital to save the £1million a year that the hospital trust's board is currently costing is the preferred option of the East of England Strategic Health Authority.

The SHA's Dr Stephen Dunn and NHS Cambridgeshire's communications chief, Jessica Bawden, will be explaining the future options to members of one of Huntingdonshire District Council's scrutiny panels at a meeting on Tuesday evening, January 6.

The authority has left open the option of franchising to a private or public sector organisation. But it cannot go ahead without agreement from the Department of Health. Given that involvement of the private sector will cause uproar with trade unions and disquiet among hospital employees, the DoH is unlikely to agree to what will be seen as opening the door to "privatising the NHS" this side of a General Election.

And that is unlikely to be called any sooner than it has to be - in May 2010.

The two NHS managers are therefore unlikely to be able to answer the panel's first question: when is the department likely to give its formal approval?

It will also want to know how many other hospitals operate under a franchise and what their track record is, how long a franchise would last and what would happen to the hospital's accumulated £39million debt - much of which managers believe should not still be on the balance sheet. (Hinchingbrooke now makes a small surplus on its day-to-day activities, but the volume of work it carries out is due to start diminishing during 2009.)

A franchise at the Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield was later returned to the NHS.

The scrutiny panel will also want reassurance about how a mooted "stakeholder panel", to be chaired by HDC's chief executive David Monks, will operate during the consultation that will be triggered by an eventual DoH decision.

Scrutiny panel chairman Councillor Steve Criswell said last week: "Unfortunately, the future safety of Hinchingbrooke Hospital is back on the agenda. With the Strategic Health Authority considering franchising the hospital to a third party, there are considerable concerns, particularly as under current arrangements the sizeable debt will still need to be repaid.

"Any decision could have major consequences for patients and staff. Our scrutiny panel meeting will provide council members with an opportunity to be fully briefed ahead of the consultations planned for 2009. As always, the effective delivery of health services for the people of Huntingdonshire and beyond will be our prime concern.