A GMS contract is a legally binding agreement made between a GP practice and NHS England (NHSE) that sets out certain obligations for both parties. It is the most important asset a practice will hold.
Running to over 270 pages plus lengthy appendices, it is a substantial and complicated document, both to navigate and understand.
Unless a practice has read it from beginning to end, and has very careful monitoring in place, it is likely that most practices will be in breach of their obligations at some point or another – in many cases, without realising.
So, what can practices do to protect their contracts?
Dealing with a breach
There are many reasons why a practice may be in breach of their GMS contract. Some are minor and some more serious.
If you do become aware of a contractual breach, you should rectify the problem as soon as possible and put procedures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. You should then assess the impact of the breach.
An example of a minor breach might be a failure to keep the practice leaflet or website up to date. There is not normally any obligation to inform NHSE of these minor breaches, although a practice would be obliged to provide such information if requested. If NHSE were to find out they would probably issue a breach or remediation notice. Once a practice receives two or more of these, NHSE become entitled to terminate the contract on notice, subject to a cumulative impact test.
For more serious breaches, you may be obliged to notify NHSE. In particular you should notify NHSE as soon as reasonably practicable, of “any serious incident that, in your reasonable opinion, affects or is likely to affect your performance of your obligations under the contract.”
Whilst this leaves room for ambiguity, a breach would certainly be considered ‘serious’ if it put patient safety at risk. An example of this might be a failure of the vaccine fridge, combined with inadequate records to prove that the no vaccines had been compromised.
Once NHSE becomes aware of a serious breach, they would consider whether to deal with it under the breach and remediation notices procedure outlines above, or possibly to terminate the contract forthwith. They could only do the latter, however, if they could show that patient safety was at serious risk.
There are particular notification requirements for breaches where:
- a contractor is no longer eligible to hold a contract – for example, if there is no General Practitioner left in the partnership
- if a partner becomes bankrupt, convicted of a serious criminal offence, is disqualified or suspended, or if a partnership is dissolved
In these instances there is a requirement to notify NHSE, who then need to consider contract termination (although there is not necessarily a requirement for them to terminate).
It is worth noting that while we are talking about GMS contracts in this blog, PMS contracts usually - but not always - have very similar clauses so always refer to your individual contract to be sure.
We advise practices to familiarise themselves with their core contracts and ensure they understand their obligations. Put systems in place to help monitor compliance and if a breach occurs, attempt to remedy the situation as soon as possible and put processes in place to prevent it happening again.
In the case of more serious breaches, for which practices are obliged to inform NHSE, you should let them know as soon as you can, include an impact assessment, and show that procedures have been put in place to reduce the risk of re-occurrence.
The complex nature of the core contract means it is not always clear whether you might be in breach, nor whether you need to notify NHSE. If you are in any doubt about your compliance, the severity of a breach, or if you have received a breach or remediation notice, then always seek the advice of an experienced legal team.
For more information about managing a breach, or any other related issues, please contact Daphne Robertson on 01483 511555 or email [email protected]