Surgery may close in health cash crisis

FEARS about the impact Suffolk's health cash crisis will have on patient care were heightened last night as a surgery warned it would close its doors if payments to GPs were delayed.

FEARS about the impact Suffolk's health cash crisis will have on patient care were heightened last night as a surgery warned it would close its doors if payments to GPs were delayed.

Doctors at Combs Ford Surgery in Stowmarket have revealed they will be forced to shut up shop for one month if East Suffolk Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) postpones funding to GPs until the next financial year, as it has already suggested.

In its December newsletter Dr Jackie Muir said the surgery could not operate on good will alone and if GPs are not paid would only be able to treat patients in life threatening emergencies during March.

The announcement has caused outrage among community leaders who see the possible closure as yet more evidence of how the county's health chiefs are struggling to cope under the strain of heavy debts.


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Dr Muir's statement in this month's Combs Ford newsletter said: “In order to try and minimise the overspend in the current financial year our PCT are threatening to defer payments to GPs from March until April.

“This would mean that money which we should receive on March 1 2006 to pay our running staff, running costs and ourselves will not arrive until early April.

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“I am writing this notice to inform you that if we are not paid in March then the surgery will be forced to close, except for life-threatening emergencies.

“We will publish information about what to do in an emergency nearer the time. Please be assured that we have no intention of causing any harm or suffering to any of our patients.

“We hope that you will support us in our protest against the continuing under funding of the NHS. Our PCT believes that services will continue because they are provided by people who care - we do care, but we and our staff cannot function on goodwill alone.”

PCTs in Suffolk have combined debts of £40m and an historic deficit of £38.9m, and are required to break even within two years.

The EADT exclusively reported in October how senior staff at Suffolk East PCTs had met GPs to discuss the option of delaying their funding as they struggle to balance the books.

The latest development has led to an outcry from community leaders who are concerned that patient safety will be put at risk if other surgeries decide to follow suit.

Tory MP for Stowmarket David Ruffley, said: “This is positive proof that we are now facing a full on crisis in Suffolk. Let us just pray it's not a complete meltdown in GP services and other surgeries across the region will also be forced to close.

“The health secretary Patricia Hewitt is talking about hit squads going into Suffolk to sort out the financial mess that causes threats to surgeries like that at Combs Ford but it is all a little too late.

“The crisis has been raging for two years and the financial controls have been a complete and utter joke. “However it is no laughing matter when GP services are affected at the sharp end.”

Eleanor Ramsey, county councillor for Stowmarket North, said it was “bad news” and “the final nail in the coffin” for Suffolk's ailing health system.

She continued: “People come from miles around to use the surgery and a closure, even for a month, is bound to have a detrimental effect.

“It's an incredible worry because even though now it is just an isolated incident there is no way of knowing which other surgeries might do the same.”

Green Party councillor Twiggy Davis, who is also a patient at the Combs Ford Surgery, said: “Many local people will be alarmed and upset at this news. The threat of closure must be withdrawn at once.

“The PCT has a duty to ensure services are maintained, especially to those who are vulnerable through illness and infirmity.”

However Dr Ron Donnelly, a GP at the Siam Surgery in Sudbury and chairman of the Suffolk branch of the British Medical Association, said he did not think other surgeries would necessarily follow in Combs Ford's footsteps.

He said: “I don't think the surgery is overreacting - if anything it is evidence of the financial mess the PCTs have got themselves into - and I can see why some GPs rightly feel that if they are not going to be paid then they cannot work.

“However I wouldn't have thought it was the case all surgeries will say enough is enough and take such steps as closure.”

And last night a spokesman for East Suffolk PCTs, which includes Ipswich, Suffolk Coastal and Central Suffolk, stressed no decision had yet been made on whether to defer the payments.

He added: “For the past two months regular discussions have been taking place with GPs about the financial challenges faced by the PCTs and how they are tackling them.

“The PCTs in East Suffolk continue to work extremely closely with the Strategic Health Authority (SHA) on how to maintain and reach financial balance whilst continuing to deliver high quality primary care services.”

Members of staff from Combs Ford surgery declined to comment last night.

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