A £750m lifeline for local hospitals

MARK NICHOLLS Embattled community hospitals across the region were given a massive shot in the arm yesterday as the government unveiled a £750m funding package designed to bring services closer to patients.

MARK NICHOLLS

Embattled community hospitals across the region were given a massive shot in the arm yesterday as the government unveiled a £750m funding package designed to bring services closer to patients.

It will mean more than a dozen hospitals in Norfolk and Suffolk such as Wells, North Walsham, Dereham, Aylsham, Ditchingham and Hartismere - many of which have been threatened with closure or cutbacks - could be given a new lease of life.

And while the new money does not totally guarantee their long-term future, a senior government health minister warned Primary Care Trusts that they should “stop and think” before rushing in to close community hospitals.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt announced yesterday that the government would invest £750m over the next five years in developing a new generation of community hospitals, widening the services they offer.

PCTs will be invited to bid for a portion of the pot and use the cash to improve services, build new community hospitals or convert old acute hospitals.

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Health chiefs in Norfolk and Suffolk are expected to begin putting together plans to bid for the cash in an attempt to extend community services.

Diana Clark, chief executive of North Norfolk PCT, yesterday said: “This announcement is wonderful news for a county like Norfolk and in particular rural areas where access to services is a real issue. This is a real opportunity to get better service distribution.”

Over the past two years, NNPCT has been locked in a battle with campaigners over the future of Wells Cottage Hospital, which was closed in late 2004, but following approval by health chiefs will now re-opened in September run by the Wells Hospital and Hospice Trust.

Mrs Clark said that over the next few days she planned talks with the Wells charitable trust to discuss ways of accessing some of the new funding. Other PCTs across the region will be adopting a similar approach.

While still awaiting the finer details of the new funding, Mrs Clark said: “There could be changes to existing services. What we could be looking at is more diagnostic services and x-ray offered as close to where people live as possible and taking place out in the community rather than in the big District General Hospitals. It will be great for patients and great for access.”

She said it has the potential to safeguard community hospitals but also to see new buildings and changes in service.

The health secretary said private companies would be invited to invest in the future of community hospitals, which “have for too long been viewed as the poor relation of larger hospitals.”

There are currently more than 300 community hospitals in England, but campaigners have said nearly a third are under threat.

Community hospitals are designed to offer quick access to medical checks, day surgery and out-of-hours doctor services, all close to a patient's home.

In the future, the government hopes they will act as centres for procedures such as biopsies and a wider range of minor operations, as well as centres for providing chemotherapy.

Ms Hewitt said the government would be opening up new sources of cash for small community hospitals, as they looked to tackle historic funding shortages.

Health Minister Lord Warner said: “We expect the next generation of community hospitals to have a wider range of services.”

He also stated that “we are not saying there should never be a closure” of an existing community hospital. But he added that “we are effectively giving the message: Stop and think before you rush to close any hospital.”

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) welcomed the move but the Tories said the cash was "too little too late” but campaigners in the region welcomed the announcement.

Freda Abell, secretary of Friends of Dereham Hospital, said her group would be delighted if the extra cash meant the hospital would stay open.

Eric Havers, chairman of the League of Friends group for Hartismere Hospital, said that Ms Hewitt's announcement had given them fresh hope that their closure-threatened hospital would be retained and modernised.

Barbara Moore, chief executive of the Community Hospitals Association, welcomed the announcement.

She added: "The additional funding will assist many local communities to realise their aspirations to create or update buildings to accommodate local services that are as diverse as the communities they serve.

"The CHA also welcomes the commitment to prevent unnecessary closures of community hospitals.

The pressure group Chant (Community Hospitals Acting Together Nationally) said community hospitals need revenue support, not just capital spending.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "The Government talk about delivering more care in the community but the infrastructure is not in place. This announcement will be too late for the dozens of community hospitals that have already closed across the country.”