The service that provides rehabilitation equipment to patients coming out of hospital is to be contracted out in Brighton and Hove.
The decision to privatise the Integrated Community Equipment Service (ICES) was greeted angrily by staff and unions at a meeting at Hove Town Hall on Wednesday (10 September).
Members of two unions – Unison and the GMB – held a protest outside Hove Town Hall before the decision was made.
And after the meeting of the Brighton and Hove Health and Wellbeing Board, the Unison branch officer for adult social care, Sue Beatty, said: “On such a major decision I would have expected a little more discussion and more questions from the board members to the commissioners.
“Our service is always first class. That can’t be said of private providers.
“There was no thought for what the public want who use that service, no thought for the staff who run that service.
“It seemed like a done deal.”
GMB regional organiser Gary Palmer said: “We will be looking very closely at the track record of potential providers in the way they treat staff.”
A report to the Health and Wellbeing Board said: “ICES procure, provide, deliver, fit, collect, maintain, clean and recycle equipment for health and social care.
“The service supplies equipment and fittings to people in their own homes … supporting timely discharge from hospital and helping people to maintain their independence at home.”
The service has been run by Sussex Community NHS Trust since 2004 but the trust has given notice under its contract with Brighton and Hove City Council. It will stop providing the service by September next year at the latest.
The Health and Wellbeing board, which is made up mostly of council and local NHS representatives, has decided to join forces with West Sussex County Council.
West Sussex has used a private contractor – Nottingham Rehab Supplies (NRS) – since 2005 and the contract runs until next spring.
The report to the Health and Wellbeing Board said: “As well as saving time and resources by not carrying out a procurement exercise, Brighton and Hove would gain from the experience that West Sussex have in procuring a second generation ICES and from the efficiencies to be gained from sharing the procurement and delivery of equipment across geographical areas.”
Councillor Warren Morgan, who leads the opposition Labour group on the council, read a letter from a member of the ICES team, in Clarendon Place, Portslade: “I would like someone to explain to me, honestly, how privatising this service will be for the good of the people of Brighton and Hove?
“I would also like someone to tell us what will happen if the private company, once successful in taking us over, runs out of money due to the increasing demand for stock items and, more worryingly, the amount of special equipment items that are now being approved.
“We go over budget every year – a budget that has not increased in line with demand for years. I want to know what will happen when the new company does the same. I assume they will have to be given more money.
“If this is the case, I do not understand why the NHS, Sussex Community Trust and (the council) could not invest in us instead, allow us to be given a chance to set up a modern, high-tech and efficient service.
“Everyone keeps telling us what a brilliant job we do, in such awful unfit-for-purpose conditions.
“Imagine what we could if we had the right facilities and warehouse and office.”
Councillor Morgan said: “This has undoubtedly been a service that has provided an essential and valuable service to some of our most vulnerable residents over many years, a dedicated team who are valued by those service users, albeit operating out of a centre that is no longer fit for purpose.
“I would hope that we owe it to those staff and those service users to explore as far as possible every possible option if economically we can no longer afford to run it in-house, whether that is a transfer to an organisation in the voluntary sector, a co-operative or some other local organisation – one that might be able to provide the kind of capital investment needed.
“Why are we not looking at starting our own company here in the city that can offer this service, expand and compete … in what is clearly a growing market with increasing demand.
“All the time we look elsewhere for providers, we are spending our money with companies in other parts of the UK. The spend is lost to the city.
“What options, if any, have been explored to find the capital investment required, given that this would seem to be a business with a solid future?
“There are very valid concerns over whether the services handed to the private sector will be provided at the same high standard over a period of time and there ought to be a very high benchmark when we come to the transfer of services to any other sector from the council as to how much democratic control we have over the contract and the quality of service and terms and conditions of staff transferred in the long run.”
The chief executive of the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group Geraldine Hoban said: “The idea of a city local service is very attractive but the (lack of) economies of scale would be really prohibitive.
“Having a service that covers a much greater area would allow us to store much more specialist equipment.”
It would, she said, also bring down unit costs.
Green council leader Jason Kitcat said: “We got notice from the NHS provider that they’re not going to provide the service any more.
“The council has to cut £26 million from its budget. We don’t have the capital to invest in this.”
Conservative spokesman Councillor Ken Norman said: “There is no evidence to say that the organisation we are going to tie up with will be any less good than the service we currently provide. I’ve used the service three times and it was very good but there’s always room to improve.”
Denise D’Souza, the director of adult services, said: “We’ve seen a significant increase in the demand for equipment and the types of equipment. Systems to deal with that haven’t kept pace.
“When we looked at the store and what would be needed in terms of space, technology and to offer a more personalised service over six or seven days a week, it was clear a lot needed to be done.
“We need to get better at recycling.”
A previous report said that equipment worth tens of thousands of pounds went missing each year because it was not being returned when patients no longer needed it.
She said: “Sussex Community Trust decided it wasn’t part of their core business. It’s not part of our core business and we don’t have the capital to invest.
“It’s not part of the core business of adult social care. It’s very much around a logistical, cleansing service.”
She acknowledged that it had been unsettling for the 21 staff who were working at the store, which is next to the Belgrave Day Centre.
She added: “We have a store that does need an awful lot of money spending on it.
“Performance has been good (but) what we don’t have is the pot of money to do what is needed with the store going forward.”
The new contract is likely to be awarded by West Sussex County Council next month with a start date of next April.
The winning bidder is likely to start serving patients in Brighton and Hove at some point between the start of April and the end of September.