Nine months, the involvement of the Information Commissioner’s Office and approval from the CEO of NHS England. That’s what it took to get the health service to respond to a Freedom of Information request.
Had I requested post-apocalypse planning documents? Or details on how much larger Jeremy Hunt’s security budget had become since his most recent omnishambles? No. I had asked for documents relating to negotiations for the 2014-15 pharmacy funding settlement.
You might be tempted to yawn at this point and you’d be right to. The redacted documents finally released (see below) are deeply boring. But I wasn’t looking for a smoking gun. I was simply hoping to shed some light on how the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) and NHS agree to allocate £2.8bn of public money to community pharmacy.
All negotiations to date seem to have occurred in a smoke-filled room. Incredibly, it’s a room NHS England does not even sit in because they contract out negotiations to NHS Employers – an organisation that considers itself an “expert in HR” (I’m as puzzled as you).
The other party in the room is, of course, PSNC – an organisation that unsurprisingly faces a lot of criticism. It’s true that negotiating a financial settlement in a period of austerity will leave few smiling, whatever the outcome. What is surprising is the way PSNC seems to have hardly changed in response to changes in healthcare. It’s had the same CEO for over 14 years and the LPC network is from an analogue era.
It’s also surprising that contractors have a monopoly over the negotiating process. The negotiation is not simply a matter of pounds and pence. It is the NHS telling pharmacists what it wants them to do and how it wants them to do it. The idea that an employee pharmacist shouldn’t have a say in that is absurd. It serves to create a widening culture gap between pharmacists and those who employ them, which is in nobody’s interest.
That’s why – despite December's announcement of a 6% funding cut being entirely unwanted – I think pharmacists should welcome NHS England’s new ‘open letter’ approach to negotiations. It provides an opportunity for consultation with organisations like the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), who can represent employee and patient interests. If you want to see how that looks different, just read the responses to the pharmacy funding cut by the RPS here and PSNC here. I certainly know which response I prefer.
Pharmacists might not like the outcome of contract negotiations, but they at least now have a say in it and there is some transparency over the decision-making process. That can only be a good thing.
Ranveer Bassey is a pharmacist who qualified in 2013