Hike in public money owed to private firm for NW lab

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The annual sum of public money paid to a private developer that provided £15m upfront to build the Altnagelvin laboratory and pharmacy in 2007, hiked again between 2012/13 and 2013/14.

Outgoing Health Minister Jim Wells revealed that the annual amount the public owe to the United Healthcare Land Company rose to £2,114,040 in 2013/14.

That’s over half-a-million pounds per year more than the annual £1.6m the Stormont Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was originally advised the company would get from the Western Trust until 2032 - the projected end of what is one of the longest-running Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) in Northern Ireland.

The Minister made the revelation in response to an Assembly Question from Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood.

“No new PFI projects were undertaken within the Foyle Area during 2013/14,” said Mr Wells.

“There is only one existing project. The Western Health and Social Care Trust made a unitary charge payment of £2,114,040 in 2013/14 for the PPP/PFI Altnagelvin Laboratory and Pharmacy Services Centre.

“This project was completed as a PFI in 2007, and the annual unitary charge payment is part of the 25 year concession on that project,” he added.

The Altnagelvin laboratory and pharmacy will remain in private hands until 2032 at least.

The United Health Care Land Company - a consortium of developers, investors and insurers headquartered in Suffolk - stumped up £15m for the original construction of the lab.

Remarkably, documents obtained by the Sentinel in 2013 revealed the building is actually privately rather than publicly owned.

The Department of Health (DHSSPS) said the lab is actually a fully private entity.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, DHSSPS said the lab was one of four hospital buildings that were “fully privately owned.” The others were the South West Acute hospital and renal units in Antrim and Belfast. The Royal Hospital Car Park is also “fully privately owned.” The Western Trust buildings were enabled by the two longest public private contracts in Northern Ireland.

The release said: “These buildings revert to public sector ownership after the contract period expires unless renewed.”

The Altnagelvin deal is the second longest tying a local health trust with a private financier or operator lasting until 2032.

The longest public/private partnership - involving the Northern Ireland Health Group - is for a new acute hospital in Enniskillen and lasts until May 2042.

In 2012 former Health Minister Edwin Poots advised: “The contract is for 25 years for the design, build, operation and maintenance of a Laboratory and Pharmacy Centre at Altnagelvin.

“This facility includes provision of five specialist laboratory areas, along with a new pharmacy department which incorporates special cancer drug dispensing facilities.”

The lab opened in 2007 but the repayments, continuing for the next 17 years, will amount to tens of millions.