Friday, 30 March 2012

Cherie Blair moves into private healthcare

By Anousha Sakoui, Andrea Felsted and Sarah Neville for the Financial Times

Cherie Blair will venture into the health market on Saturday with the launch of a private healthcare centre in a branch of J Sainsbury – the supermarket chain.  This is part of a debut venture by the private equity fund she co-founded, which plans to open 100 private health centres across the UK, at a time when government reforms are triggering enormous upheavals in the cash-strapped National Health Service.

But in her first interview on the topic, Mrs Blair, who is married to former prime minister Tony Blair, rebuffed any suggestion that the venture sought to take advantage of difficulties in the NHS.  “While this venture is a commercial one, it is not about replacing the NHS or profiteering, but complementing the services it already offers,” Mrs Blair told the Financial Times.

“Our aim is to simplify access to basic healthcare and improve medical outcomes through earlier detection and more timely referrals to GPs.”  The venture highlights a trend in the retail sector for putting extra customer services into superstores – from health centres to hairdressers – to put excess space to use.

Sainsbury’s will receive a percentage of the turnover from the service, which is being launched in Leeds, as well as rent and the health centres will run on a partnership model similar to that operated by John Lewis, the UK retailer.  They will provide health, optical, hearing and dental care, and are expected to employ GPs and dentists. 

However, the role of the private sector in healthcare delivery has come under scrutiny as the government’s NHS reform legislation endured a difficult passage through parliament.  Critics, including some within the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, argued that plans to promote competition in the provision of NHS-funded services paved the way for privatisation.  The reform blueprint was watered down to secure the support of Lib Dem dissenters.

Some in the private healthcare industry fear its share of the NHS-funded market could fall below levels it reached under Mr Blair’s premiership.  Mrs Blair founded the Allele Fund in 2008 with Gail Lese, a doctor and fund manager, with the aim of investing in healthcare and technology companies internationally.  They have lined up Cavendish, an advisory firm, to help raise $100m to finance the venture, called Mee Healthcare and which is expected to become profitable within the next five years.

“The outlook for the [health] sector couldn’t be stronger; driven by an ageing demographic in the UK, greater demand from consumers towards convenience and accessibility, combined with an increasing emphasis on health and wellbeing,” said Dr Lese. There is also growing demand for pre-screening and preventative care, she added.

Financial Times 

'Yes, I am a socialist.'  Martin Kettle interviews Cherie Blair
The Guardian, May 2008 -