This paper examines the implementation of Thailand's universal coverage healthcare reforms in a rural province, using data from field studies undertaken in 2003–2005 and 2008–2011. We focus on the strand of policy that aimed to develop primary care by allocating funds to contracting units for primary care (CUPs) responsible for managing local service networks. The two studies document a striking change in the balance of power in the local healthcare system over the 8-year period. Initially, the newly formed CUPs gained influence as ‘power followed the money’, and the provincial health offices (PHOs), which had commanded the service units, were left with a weaker co-ordination role. However, the situation changed as a new insurance purchaser, the National Health Security Office, took financial control and established regional outposts. National Health Security Office outposts worked with PHOs to develop rationalised management tools—strategic plans, targets, KPIs and benchmarking—that installed the PHOs as performance managers of local healthcare systems. New lines of accountability and changed budgetary systems reduced the power of the CUPs to control resource allocation and patterns of services within CUP networks. Whereas some CUPs fought to retain limited autonomy, the PHO has been able to regain much of its former control. We suggest that implementation theory needs to take a long view to capture the complexity of a major reform initiative and argue for an analysis that recognises the key role of policy networks and advocacy coalitions that span national and local levels and realign over time. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.