LONDON Doctors' leaders hit back on Thursday at claims by a health minister that GPs were deliberately blocking choice by agreeing not to accept each other's patients.
Minister Ben Bradshaw had said family doctors in some areas of the country operated "gentleman's agreements" not to poach patients from their colleagues.
The argument is the latest dispute between doctors and the government over plans to overhaul local services.
It comes on the back of GPs' opposition to proposals for polyclinics across England: "super surgeries" that would group together family doctors, nurses and other health services that would be open for longer and for seven days a week.
The British Medical Association, the doctors' union, says the plans would break the traditional link between patients and their GP.
In a BBC interview, Bradshaw argued that the current funding for GPs meant there was little incentive for competition between practices.
Most doctors received a large lump sum for their work, with smaller additional amounts for each patient, meaning there was less reason for some to try and attract new patients.
Bradshaw was quoted as saying there was one practice in the south of England which had just two patients.
"There is no doubt there are some areas where gentlemen's agreements operate that mitigate against lists being open to new patients and therefore work against real patient choice," he said.
But his claims were dismissed by the BMA.
"We are not aware of any local agreements between practices to prevent patients from registering," said Richard Vautrey, Deputy Chairman of the BMA's GP Committee.
"If there have been cases, we would like the Department of Health to share these with us as it is not something we would condone. Some practices are genuinely unable to take on new patients because they're bursting at the seams."
The clash is the latest in a war of words between Bradshaw and the BMA.
Last month the minister accused the BMA of scaremongering, spreading false information and pressuring patients into a backing a petition objecting to the plans for polyclinics.
More than 1.2 million people signed the petition, which urged the government to end plans to allow private firms into primary health care.
"The minister has made a habit recently of making sweeping negative statements about GPs, but he is yet to bring the BMA any hard evidence for his assertions," Vautrey said. "We need to move on from this petty name-calling."
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Steve Addison)