Health shake-up could be delayed

SUFFOLK County Council has strongly criticised the plans for a massive shake-up of health services in the region - and the controversial cutbacks could be delayed if the authority decides to refer the matter to the Secretary of State.

By Richard Smith

SUFFOLK County Council has strongly criticised the plans for a massive shake-up of health services in the region - and the controversial cutbacks could be delayed if the authority decides to refer the matter to the Secretary of State.

An interim report for the county council's health scrutiny committee meeting on November 1, comprising members from all councils in Suffolk, makes serious criticisms about the consultation process being undertaken by primary care trusts (PCT) in the county and the demands imposed by the Strategic Health Authority.

With multi-million pound health debts spiralling out of control, the region's PCTs have been told they must balance their books by next March before repaying the cash by March 2007.

In order to do so, the trusts are proposing wide-ranging closures of community hospitals across the county as well as the slashing of 55 beds at West Suffolk Hospital and 80 beds at Ipswich hospital - all of which is currently the subject of a county-wide consultation.

But the council report says: “The new timescales mean that replacement services are not yet in place, and no evidence has yet been provided in consultation to show they will be or that other legitimate concerns of stakeholders have been considered or addressed in plans.

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“Consultation has been extremely poorly handled, with little if any prior discussion of these new proposals, a summer start, little information made available at the beginning and now emerging late in the process, and no options offered.”

It also claims that the NHS “have been nervous of putting real options to the people of Suffolk” and adds: “A great deal more honesty about the cost pressures, patient behaviour and systemic professional inefficiencies that waste money, and so have necessitated these apparently rushed and poorly considered cost-cutting proposals, would give people a much greater understanding of the issues and confidence in those faced with having to manage them.”

And in January the committee could decide to refer the whole matter - the consultation and the final PCT decisions - to the Secretary of State Patricia Hewitt if they decide it “not to be in the interests of the local community.”

Jane Hore, committee chairman, said last night: “What would happen is that the Secretary of State would order a fresh set of consultation.

“This is an option open by statute, that if the scrutiny committee find anything is wrong they can refer it to the secretary of state.

“There would then be a knock-on effect - at the moment there's only three months of the financial year to get the books straight.

“If it was referred to the Secretary of State and it was determined that there should be a fresh consultation then I think we would have used up the three months - it would delay any implementation of the proposals.”

She added: “The concern is held right across Suffolk is because it affects everybody. It is a major, major change.”

Forest Heath District Council has also questioned the speed at which the swingeing cuts could be introduced.

Councillors, in their response to Suffolk West PCT's plans, said the public needed reassurance that the alternative models, such as providing care in patients' own homes, would work before hospital beds were closed.

They said: “It is not apparent that the PCT will be sensitive to whether or not the intermediate care teams are ready to cope in the community.

“The public need confidence that the new care system does and will work before the closure of hospital beds takes place.''

Councillors criticised cut-backs plans in Sudbury and Newmarket, saying the hospitals were easy targets in a cost-cutting exercise.

But a spokesman for the PCT said: “We would categorically and emphatically refute the comment that the PCT is not interested in improving the health service. That is patently nonsense.''

In Suffolk Coastal the district council has warned that proposed cuts could have a severe adverse impact on patients.

Councillors question whether there are adequate resources to fill the gap in patient care if hospital closures at Eye and Felixstowe and bed cuts at Aldeburgh are implemented.

A report by Sherrie Green, cabinet member for community well-being, calls for the consultation timescale to be extended and for the SHA to broker the huge debt.

“Delivering the new proposals within a much shorter, six-month timescale significantly increases the risk of adverse impact on the local community including patients, family carers and stakeholders,'' says the report.

Jan Rowsell, Suffolk east PCTs' spokeswoman, said: “We welcome everybody's viewpoint and will look very carefully at all of the recommendations and the issues raised in this report to the cabinet.”