Health bosses grilled over cutbacks

By Danielle NuttallHEALTH bosses faced a series of tough questions at a meeting to discuss proposals over the future of community hospitals in Suffolk.

By Danielle Nuttall

HEALTH bosses faced a series of tough questions at a meeting to discuss proposals over the future of community hospitals in Suffolk.

Members of Suffolk County Council's select committee on community hospitals met yesterday to discuss the planned changes to Suffolk's health system as it grappled with serious debts.

They questioned representatives from primary care trusts across the county, which are planning to cut inpatient beds to clear multi-million-pound deficits.

These proposals include closing hospitals in Sudbury, Eye and Newmarket and axing beds at hospitals in Felixstowe and Aldeburgh.

Among the health experts present at the meeting was Martin Taylor, financial director of the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority.

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He was asked by Suffolk Coastal district councillor Gordon Lang whether the steps being taken now would mean there would be no need to make further cuts and changes in the future.

Mr Taylor replied: “There has always been the need for efficiency in the NHS. The allocations that have been made have been well above inflation up until now. That is a trend we cannot expect to continue.

“We do not know what pressures that will be faced over the next period of years.”

The closures are aimed at tackling a countywide debt of £47million, which must be paid back by the end of 2005-06. Other cutbacks in acute hospitals and mental health services are also in the pipeline.

Primary care trusts in the west and east of the county are proposing to replace the axed hospital beds with greater care in the community.

Carole Taylor-Brown, chief executive of Suffolk East Primary Care Trusts, said they aimed to save £4m from a programme of change.

County councillor Kathy Pollard asked what the costs would be if they were to make some of the staff in hospitals redundant.

Janice Steed, director of service, delivery and improvement at Suffolk East Primary Care Trusts, said: “We are trying to secure maximum opportunities for all our staff.

“We don't want to lose local skills and staff to go through the pain of that and we do not want the cost.”

Mike Stonard, chief executive of Suffolk West Primary Care Trust, said it had a recurrent overspend of £13.5m and was facing a 5% reduction in 2006-07 in its target funding (£12m).

“In terms of our overspend, there is a lot of debate in the media about how it's possible for the health service to get into the position we are in,” he told the meeting.

“Eighty per cent of our expenditure is spent for us, so every time a patient visits a GP it's the primary care trust that pays the bill. The Government also instructs us to spend on certain initiatives, of which we have no choice.”

The select committee will meet on Monday to draw its conclusions and discuss any further action it might take, including writing to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt with its concerns.