Bid to save hospitals looks set to fail

HEALTH bosses were under attack last night for pledging to continue with the controversial closures of community hospitals - despite huge public opposition to the plans.

By Richard Smith

HEALTH bosses were under attack last night for pledging to continue with the controversial closures of community hospitals - despite huge public opposition to the plans.

The overwhelming majority of more than 30,000 people who took part in consultation about the changes fiercely opposed the closures of mental health services and hospitals in east Suffolk.

But it now almost certain that on Wednesday, the Suffolk East Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) will agree to close and sell the Bartlet Hospital, in Felixstowe, and Hartismere Hospital, in Eye, and cut NHS beds at Aldeburgh Hospital.

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Also set to close are the Hayward day hospital at Ipswich Hospital, the Hollies employment project and the Pines occupational therapy facility, both at St Clement's Hospital, Ipswich, the Old Fox Yard clubhouse, Stowmarket, the Bridge House clubhouse, Ipswich, and day hospitals at Kesgrave, Saxmundham and Violet Hill, Stowmarket.

The money raised from the sale of Hartismere Hospital and the Bartlet Hospital and its annexe will be used to improve other facilities.

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The changes are designed to help the PCTs reduce huge debts and help staff introduce the provision of a community-based service “closer to home” rather than relying on traditional bed-based services in hospitals. An unspecified number of job cuts are expected.

The 19-week public consultation on the proposals saw 31,302 people take part, of which 29,541 responses were signatures to eight petitions calling for services and hospitals to be retained.

There were 1,424 returned questionnaires, 337 written responses from individuals and organisations and 51 staff or public consultation meetings.

CLEAR, the independent consultants who analysed the consultation, warned the process had not been perfect.

“The health community would also be wise to take greater care in future when drafting questionnaires and to devote more effort and resource to managing public expectation,” said their report, which was unveiled yesterday.

The PCTs could not divulge how much the consultation has cost. Jan Rowsell, PCTs' spokeswoman, said: “I do not have the figures available because there are some things which are subject to legitimate commercial confidentiality restrictions.”

Carole Taylor-Brown, chief executive of the Suffolk East PCTs, said: “The responses come from out of a population of 360,000 people and I think it is a relatively small proportion of our population that responded, and it is a very localised response.

“I think it is understandable that the way in which we put the questions to them that they have responded adversely. We have listened to what people have told us and made significant changes in the recommendations to the trust boards which address many of the concerns and issues raised.

“We clearly recognise that the speed of change is a major concern to people and in response we are recommending a longer 'changeover' or transitional period, putting in more safeguards for people with NHS beds available for both step up (being admitted from the community) and step down (being admitted from a general hospital) beds.

“What is being proposed is different to what people are familiar with and we appreciate the passion that people have for their community hospitals such as Aldeburgh, the Bartlet in Felixstowe, and Hartismere Hospital in Eye.”

Mrs Taylor-Brown said it had been difficult to get the message across to the public that the way in which services were provided was extremely important - more important than buildings which in some cases were not fit for the new model of care.

She added: “This has been a difficult and contentious consultation which has raised deep emotions and concerns. The process of consultation has, however, been influenced by misconception around the proposed model of care and genuine anxiety across the community as to the wider impact of the financial challenges facing health care services in east Suffolk.

“There are real lessons to be learnt here by the PCTs which will need to be built into any implementation plans and any future consultations.

“We are very concerned about keeping community services in place, but very appropriately so. We are trying to improve facilities at Felixstowe General Hospital and we see this facility as very important and one that we want to develop.

“At Hartismere, the building is not sound for purpose but we do want to develop and retain a base in that area. We want to develop some facilities at Eye and have beds provided through other agencies and will commission that very quickly.

“Aldeburgh is a very community hospital and while we are seeing some reduction in NHS commissioned beds, we do see a very positive future for Aldeburgh.”

The financial position facing the PCTs has improved - but it is still very bleak for the next financial year.

It was forecasting an overspend of £18.4m by the end of this financial year. Now it is predicted to be £2.1m.

But there is the underlying debt of £19.8m to be brought forward and Mrs Taylor-Brown said for the year 2006-7 there could be a £26m deficit to clear.

She could not rule out further high profile cutbacks in hospital buildings or services, adding: “We will constantly look at the way we provide services.”

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