NHS bill for private out-of-area mental health care rises to £100m

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Labour calls for investment in public provision rather than lining companies’ pockets

Whorlton Hall
The BBC’s Panorama revealed in May that residents at Whorlton Hall had been abused by staff. Photograph: BBC/PA

NHS spending on private firms nursing people with mental health problems outside their local authority area has risen by almost 30% in a year to £100m.

Adults in mental health crises were sent as far as 300 miles from home last year – a situation NHS chiefs have admitted reduces the chances of recovery because vulnerable people are separated from their loved ones.

Figures uncovered by Labour show private healthcare firms are being paid increasing amounts to look after such patients as the NHS struggles to cope.

In 2018/19, £99,683,000 was spent on out-of-area placements provided by private companies, up from £77,324,720 in 2017/18, government statistics show.

Payments included more than £31m to Cygnet Healthcare, which owned Whorlton Hall, a unit that was criticised after the BBC’s Panorama revealed in May that residents had been abused by staff.

Another provider, the Priory Group, received more than £45m. The firm was fined £300,000 over “gross failings” that contributed to the death of a 14-year-old in one of its psychiatric facilities in 2014.

Other private providers hosting out-of-area mental health placements include St Andrew’s Healthcare, Elysium Healthcare and the Huntercombe Group, which each received more than £4m.

In 2018/19 more than 1,300 of these placements were more than 200 miles from the patient’s home, effectively cutting off people from the vital support of their friends and family.

The health service has a programme to create more beds but the widespread practice of out-of-area placements has triggered calls for this to be speeded up.

There are doubts as to whether repeated ministerial pledges to end out-of-area care in mental health by 2020/21 will be honoured, given the service’s heavy reliance on the practice.

Barbara Keeley, the shadow minister for mental health, said: “It is outrageous that the NHS is paying private companies huge sums of money to deliver what is inappropriate and often inadequate care. Companies like Cygnet are still pocketing tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money despite being found to have abused patients.

“Rather than continuing to line the pockets of private companies and their shareholders, the government should be investing in high-quality public provision which enables people with mental health issues to receive the treatment they need near to home.”

The Guardian disclosed last month that the amount of the NHS budget spent on private healthcare firms had reached unprecedented levels. The Department of Health and Social Care handed a record total of £9.2bn last year to private providers such as Virgin Care and the Priory Group, its annual report showed.

This was an increase of 14% from the £8.1bn that went to profit-driven healthcare companies in 2014/15, and £410m more than the £8.77bn total in 2017/18.