NHS cash crisis talks held

FURIOUS Suffolk MPs last night took on Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt – demanding Government action to sort out the crippling financial crisis which is devastating the county's hospitals.

FURIOUS Suffolk MPs last night took on Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt - demanding Government action to sort out the crippling financial crisis which is devastating the county's hospitals.

Faced with a countywide debt of £42.5 million, under-fire health bosses have announced massive cutbacks, which have sent shockwaves through local communities.

Staff and patients of hospitals in west Suffolk now face an anxious few months before health chiefs reveal exactly where the axe will fall.

Proposed cutbacks include closing 55 beds and two surgical theatres at West Suffolk Hospital, Bury St Edmunds, withdrawing another 16 beds from Newmarket Hospital and losing outpatient clinics at Thetford Cottage Hospital.

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Sudbury's two hospitals - Walnuttree and St Leonard's - have also been earmarked for closure as the primary care trust plans to centralise these services at West Suffolk Hospital. More than 400 jobs are under threat.

In east Suffolk, Suffolk Coastal Primary Care Trust has axed 16 beds and the minor injuries unit at Aldeburgh Hospital and removed 25 beds from the Bartlet Hospital, Felixstowe.

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Last night, Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo and West Suffolk counterpart Richard Spring grilled the Government minister, calling for PCT bosses to be given more time to pay off the crippling debts.

Sir Michael Lord, MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich was also at the meeting, along with Lord Phillips of Sudbury.

Speaking to the EADT after the meeting, Mr Yeo said: "We had a good exchange and we focused on three points.

"The first was the under-funding of Suffolk compared to some other parts of the country, which she promised to look at but did not make a commitment.

"The second issue was that, if the trusts in Suffolk have to balance their books, that they should be given longer to do so.

"If they were, some of the more damaging aspects of the proposals could be alleviated.

"She did say that she would look at it, but she did stress that the Strategic Health Authority (SHA) were there to make sure the books did balance.

"The third point was the one that related specifically to the Walnuttree. This was about the fact that the actual proposal is directly contradictory to all the assurances we were given earlier this year.

"The proposals also contradict the Government's own health policies. We dwelt on that for some time.

"She responded that she did not want to express a view because the consultation is about to start."

Mr Yeo continued: "I think we had a fair hearing - we had a chance to make all the points that people concerned about the Walnuttree would want us to make.

"It's frustrating that we've got no firm answers from her but I can't say I'm surprised by that. We've opened the door to carry on the battle."

Mr Spring, who claimed the county's health funding is currently 20% below the national average, added: "We just told her in no uncertain terms that there is a crisis in the NHS in Suffolk and it's causing the sort of mayhem that is going on at the moment.

"We explained to her that there is this budgetary situation that is spiralling ever worse. She accepted that the financial situation was a bad one and said she'd look into it.

"We didn't spare her - we told her categorically that there is a collapse of confidence in the NHS in Suffolk.

"She now has heard it from the horses' own mouths. We've got a very strong case I think and I hope she will respond. We made the case as forcefully as we possibly could."

Campaigners and health bosses gave the meeting a cautious backing but said more was still needed.

Michael Mitchell, chief campaigner fighting to save the Walnuttree, said: "We welcome the meeting but now we have to hope something good comes out of it.

"We have received letters from the Department of Health but they claim it is to do with the SHA or PCT and we should voice our opposition to them.

"It all seems to be a bit of a cop out - everyone is blaming everyone else and they are just passing the buck. It is getting ridiculous."

Chris Bown, chief executive of West Suffolk Hospital NHS Trust, said: "More time to repay our debts would be welcome and would certainly help us in planning for the long-term.

"However, we have a statutory duty to get into financial balance this year. We cannot avoid the need to take difficult decisions now if we are to ensure that the people of west Suffolk continue to receive high quality acute services from the hospital."

No one from the Department of Health was available for comment after last night's meeting.

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