Patients will get power to demand more doctors.
PATIENTS in Merseyside suffering GP shortages will be able to force the recruitment of private doctors instead, under radical government plans unveiled yesterday.
They will trigger action by signing a petition demanding their primary care trust (PCT) bring in either a private medical company or a voluntary group to fill the gap.
The PCT will then face a deadline - perhaps of 12 months - to explain how it plans to recruit more GPs from "any willing provider".
The new practices and walk-in centres are likely to include "breakfast" and "tea-time" surgeries, by opening from as early as 7am and as late as 10pm.
But the shake-up is likely to run into opposition from some Labour MPs, who are suspicious of the "creeping privatisation" of the NHS.
Until now, the private sector role in the NHS has been largely confined to hospital operations, rather than community services, such as family doctors.
The new powers will be introduced across Merseyside and North Cheshire, where almost all areas are recognised as "under-doctored" by the Department of Health (DoH).
The worst-hit is Knowsley, which has just 44.5 family doctors per 100,000 patients, compared with more than 70 in prosperous parts of the South.
Southport (47.3), South Sefton (49), South Liverpool (49.2), St Helens (49.5), Central Liverpool (50.1), North Liverpool (50.7), West Lancashire (50.8) and Halton (51.5) are also struggling.
Attempts to woo more NHS GPs to areas with shortages, by offering them "golden hellos" of pounds 10,000, have had little effect. Now, under new proposals designed to narrow inequalities in community health services, private companies will step in, provided services remain free at the point of use.
The DoH has not yet decided how many signatures are needed to trigger action, but one possibility is 5% of local people, the proportion required to force a referendum for an elected mayor.
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said private firms were needed because PCTs on their own did not have the "size or clout" to tackle health inequalities.
It was difficult to attract traditional GPs because they were self-employed, but the doctors brought in by private companies would be paid a salary.
Ms Hewitt said: "There is no issue of principle here. It is simply about enduring we get the services we need to the people who need it most."
The White Paper, entitled "Our health, Our care, Our say" aims to make NHS care more accessible by shifting services from large acute hospitals into the community.
That has raised fears that the hospital building programme, including pounds 1bn plans to rebuild the Royal Liverpool and Alder Hey and create a new health centre at Aintree, will be scaled back.
But Ms Hewitt insisted yesterday that the 79 projects already earmarked for funding under the private finance initiative (PFI) would go ahead.
Treatments such as dermatology, orthopaedics and gynaecology will be taken out of hospitals and people given check-ups at key points in their life - a so-called "Health MOT".
The "Life Check" questionnaire will be filled in either on paper or online.
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Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt - unveiled radical new plans