A PRIVATE company with a North-East MP as director will operate a controversial new scheme that forces GPs to submit referrals to a third party for approval, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Labour MP Dr Paul Williams has confirmed that Hartlepool and Stockton Healthcare Ltd (HASH) will be responsible for assessing referrals made by doctors across Darlington and parts of Teesside.

The Stockton South MP recently stepped down as chief executive of HASH but remains director of the company, a co-operative of North-East GPs which he says operates on a not-for-profit basis.

On Monday, he defended his company’s involvement with the Clinical Assessment and Peer Review (CASPeR) system, a pilot scheme being rolled out at GP surgeries in Darlington, Stockton and Hartlepool this week.

The politician said HASH was established to provide an alternative to private companies that profit from operating healthcare schemes.

While it is not yet clear how much HASH will be paid to run the service, Dr Williams said the company aimed to reinvest resulting income back into the NHS.

The MP, who was recently elected to the parliamentary health select committee, said: “Rather than get an external company to come in and do this, we wanted to do it ourselves and help our GPs learn from each other.

“My feeling is that if it was going to happen anyway, I’d much rather it was in a supportive way and through local GPs rather than someone from outside coming in.”

Dr Williams said the system should not delay treatment, as predicted by critics, as referrals are expected to still happen within normal waiting times.

He added: “I will do anything that is better for the patients and if this can help patients get access to treatment more quickly or appropriately, then that is a good thing.

“The whole idea is to raise standards and reduce some of the variation between doctors and find ways of getting access to treatment which will be better for patients.

“There is no chance that if a GP makes an appropriate referral with a clearly explained reason that it is going to be blocked.

“This is all about supporting doctors to make different decisions when hospital is not necessary.

“I would not be doing this if I thought it would harm patients.”

A spokeswoman for the North of England Commissioning Support said: “The system should reduce patients being referred to secondary care where there isn’t a need for them to access care in this setting so there is an expected cost benefit to implementation but this is not the only reason why the CCG is implementing the pilot.

“The process will increase the overall level of quality of care delivered to patients, ensuring everyone is treated to the same high standards of care regardless of which practice they are registered with or who they see.

"We will closely monitor the scheme and there is no evidence, from roll out of very similar schemes in other areas, to suggest that it causes any additional clinical risk or delay to treatment.

"Referrals for urgent treatments do not go through this system – they are made directly to hospital with a maximum two-week wait."

The Northern Echo has requested detailed information relating to the costs and operation of CASPeR, with further reports to follow.