US healthcare giant UnitedHealth has decided to pull out of providing primary care services in order to focus on providing GP commissioning support.

UnitedHealth UK is to transfer ownership of its GP provider business, UnitedHealth Primary Care, to The Practice PLC with immediate effect.

This means The Practice will acquire the six GP practices that UnitedHealth took over in England, often in the face of local opposition. The Practice provides care to more than 150,000 patients at 50 practices in the UK.

Katherine Ward, chief executive of UnitedHealth UK, said the move did not indicate that the company had given up on the UK market; just as the coalition government appears to want more private involvement in healthcare services.

“We’ve always said that we want to be a long-term partner of the NHS. That hasn’t changed,” she said in a statement.

“But we’ve taken the decision to focus our efforts on providing commissioning support services that can help the NHS meet the £20 billion QIPP challenge and drive improvements in care through effective commissioning.”

Even so, the move looks like the second blow to attempts to get the private sector to provide primary care services in a month. At the end of March, French firm Atos Origin handed back its contract to run the St Paul’s Way GP practice in Tower Hamlets.

Companies hoping to make a business out of commissioning support may also be finding the current climate tough.

In January, another US firm, Humana, announced that it was to pull out of the NHS commissioning support market and wind down its UK business within six months.

And Tribal recently announced that it was selling its government and health businesses to Capita, in order to focus on education.

UnitedHealth UK says it is already working with a number of pathfinder GP commissioners on support services including data analytics.

It is also part of the KPMG Partnership for Commissioning, a consortium that has won a contract from NHS London to provide support to would-be GP commissioners in the capital.

However, a three year deal with NHS Northamptonshire to commission services ended early in August last year.

UnitedHealth is based in Minnesota and is the US’ largest publicly traded health insurer by revenue. It posted strong profits for 2010, which analysts attributed to customers putting off routine and elective medical procedures because of the weak economy.

Its chief executive, Stephen Hemsley, took home $48.8m dollars – most of it realised through stock options. However, this was half as much as he took home in 2009: and judged to be “below the median level” for chief executive’s in peer-group companies.