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Focusing on procurement

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THE announcement by the AHVLA last week that it has set 2014 as the target date for the introduction of a ‘better balanced veterinary delivery model’1 seems rather low key given the extent of the changes it is likely to usher in. Essentially, the AHVLA appears to be calling time on the current arrangements under which the Government procures the services of private practitioners to carry out official functions on behalf of the state. Great Britain's Official Veterinarian (OV) arrangements have been in place for several decades and are generally reckoned to have served the country well. The AHVLA has been seeking to change the arrangements for some time now, but its announcement last week suggests that it has decided it is time to press ahead – not least, perhaps, because it is currently in the throes of some fairly significant changes itself. What is remarkable about the announcement, however, is the lack of information about what the new arrangements will entail.

The AHVLA says it wants to modernise its relationship with private veterinarians to create ‘a better balance between the needs of disease control, farmed livestock and veterinary businesses and the taxpayer’. Its ‘Veterinary Delivery Partnership’ aims to introduce a new delivery model to replace the current OV arrangements which, it says, are out of date and no longer meet European standards of governance. It says it wants to develop relationships with suppliers of veterinary services ‘including, but not limited to, tuberculin testing, taking the opportunity to enhance quality controls’. It also intends to work with veterinary organisations to modernise the appointment and training of OVs.

Details of the new arrangements may be lacking, but the AHVLA's announcement makes it clear that it is keen to see the existing arrangements replaced. It notes, for example, that the current arrangements are based on a memorandum of understanding between Defra and the BVA dating back to 1994 which, it says, ‘is more focused on the appointment of OVs rather than the specification of services provided and does not provide a legally binding contractual arrangement’. It says that the current procurement model, whereby the AHVLA negotiates a standard fees structure with the BVA, does not comply with European and UK legal requirements and, as a consequence, ‘fails to demonstrate best value for money’. It further remarks that, although the scope of OV work is wide, OVs most significantly deliver routine statutory testing for bovine TB paid for by the Government. ‘Of the £100m spent annually by Defra on bTB eradication in England alone, the greatest proportion (£38m) is allocated to tuberculin testing and related activities with some £18m forecast to be paid to OVs in 2013/14,’ it says, adding ‘This expenditure has never been subject to fair and open competition.’

Any new model adopted, the AHVLA continues, ‘is likely to offer greater flexibility of service, better enabling AHVLA to respond to new, emerging and re-emerging disease and other environmental threats’. It further suggests that there is potential to make efficiency savings for the taxpayer by: eliminating unnecessary costs by improving the quality of testing; introducing market testing of fees, including allowing regional differences in the rates paid to reflect lower costs in high-incidence areas; and reducing the administrative costs of managing a large number of OV practices and working in a more efficient way (for example, by reviewing the potential for implementing e-business ways of working).

If only it was clear what the new model will be. This is not just an academic question, but one of practical importance to practices which are currently providing OV services and any practices which might want to do so in future, and which need to plan for their businesses. It is true that various procurement models for TB testing and other services have been proposed previously and continue to be discussed, such as the tendering model put forward by the AHVLA a couple of years ago (VR, September 24, 2011, vol 169, p 320) and the more holistic ‘TB plus’ partnership approach, which is currently being advocated by the British Cattle Veterinary Association (VR, May 4, 2013, vol 172, p 461). It is also the case that the AHVLA recently published a strategy outlining how it plans to restructure its veterinary and technical services and possibly outsource more of its activities in light of its diminishing budget (VR, April 20, 2013, vol 172, p 406). However, as yet, no firm proposals appear to have emerged and, until they do, planning ahead will be difficult.

In England, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England is currently looking at the whole question of England's TB Eradication Strategy and how it should be paid for and this, ultimately, will have a significant impact on how things develop. In this sense, last week's announcement on procurement forms only part of a slowly emerging, bigger picture, which is still blurred. The AHVLA aims to have its new procurement arrangements in place by the middle of next year. From a practical point of view, the big picture needs to be in focus well before then.

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