Medical staffing agencies – very big leeches that definitely aren’t curing the problems of the NHS

Of all the papers to expose a huge drain on the NHS from private companies the Telegraph may well be the last you would expect but the issue of 31 May has an article that makes compulsive reading.

The article reveals that the management of our underfunded and cut-well-into-the -bone hospitals, who claim to have had to shed nursing staff and doctors to balance budgets, have then brought in agency staff at much higher costs than the saved wages to cover the large gaps in personnel. For their part, if they want to continue working in healthcare, the doctors and nurses made redundant have little choice other than to sign on with the agencies accepting less security and poorer conditions of employment.

The medical recruiting agencies have seen their revenue from the cash-strapped NHS rise by almost 40% to £7.7bn over the period 2009-13.

The sharks running these companies take out personal salaries of up to £950,000 a year and live in properties worth millions of pounds. This is a direct result of bleeding the NHS dry, taking away any income security of the staff both in the hospitals and those they employ while driving down the wages and conditions of both.

The use of temporary doctors is mentioned in NHS rules but only to the point where hospital managements are ‘advised’ that the agency doctors should only be used in “exceptional circumstances.” As anyone within the NHS can tell you, the use of locums in all hospitals has soared and is now the rule rather than the exception. Official figures have revealed that NHS spending across the nation on temporary workers reached a record £3.3 billion high last year, and the current massive levels of debt are being blamed more on last year’s rise in agency bills than even the PFI robbery.

Independent Clinical Services (ICS), the largest of the medical staff agencies, increased their annual income from leasing NHS-trained workers back to the NHS by 60% in just two years, to a whopping £314 million. The foundation trusts, which account for two-thirds of all NHS hospitals, increased their spending on agency staff by 64% over a two-year period. Bart’s Health NHS Trust in London are the biggest spender on agency staff, with an £81 million bill in 2014-15. They are closely followed by King’s College Hospital foundation trust and the Royal Free London NHS trust, both of which spent over £60 million each on temps. The trusts blame their reliance on temporary staff on a general lack of qualified nurses and many claim that they have tried to employ more nurses, especially in the wake of the Mid Staffs scandal, but cannot attract anyone. It was the trusts who cut their staffing numbers to the present level and cut the training programmes in the first place, driving trained staff to have to work for agencies and the untrained to look at other jobs. If there is a lack of trained staff around, that is solely down to the trust managements cutting nursing intakes.

Last month it was revealed in an NHS report, according to the Telegraph article, that there is an £822 million deficit across the health service, which was blamed on spiralling agency spending for which there is no control. Indeed, it is not unknown for a trust to be charged as much as £3,200 a shift for agency doctors.

As much as the managements of the NHS trusts suck out of the NHS budgets for themselves, this is merely a drop in the ocean compared to what the senior figures in these agencies grab from the public money meant to keep our health service going. One of these be-suited bandits, we are informed, lives in a £9.5 million house in central London and drives an Aston Martin DB9 sports car. Not bad for a middleman between workers and their jobs.

As we have said above, in total the companies involved in sourcing short-term doctors and nurses for the NHS posted revenues of £7.7 billion between 2009 and 2013, with recorded profits amounting to £84.5 million, but if we look at just the top ten companies in this super-lucrative field we see from their own accounts that their collective turnover rose 39 per cent between 2010 and 2013, to £1.93 billion.

The biggest of these suppliers of temporary medical staff is a company by the name of ICS, whose registered accounts show revenue grew from £196 million in 2011 to £314 million in 2013. Capita Health has a UK-based wing supplying temporary medical staff and this wing had underlying operating profits of £21.8 million in 2013, up 38pc from 2010 while Team 24, a Capita subsidiary which provides doctors and nursing staff, reported profits of £4.7 million in 2013 on turnover of £42.2 million. Medacs, is another agency ‘big-boy’ claiming to place more locum doctors in the NHS than any other organisation. This company also provides health care services to the police and prison service and has posted profits of £37 million since 2009, paying one of its directors £492,000 in 2013. DRC Locums, Mayday Healthcare and Healthcare Locums are other leading companies making massive profits from the supply of medical staff to the NHS.

Many patient-support bodies and trade unions are already complaining about this and the many other drags on the NHS’s scant resources, but within capitalism there is no cure. When enough of us acknowledge that, we will find ourselves that much closer to social revolution and the end of oppression for the working classes.