Norfolk health debt is cleared

JON WELCH The cash-strapped Norfolk Primary Care Trust is set to clear its multi-million pound debts to give it what health chiefs are calling a “clean slate”.But the move has been dismissed as “creative accountancy” by a health watchdog, which is warning that patients are continuing to suffer the effects of cuts.

JON WELCH

The cash-strapped Norfolk Primary Care Trust is set to clear its multi-million pound debts to give it what health chiefs are calling a “clean slate”.

But the move has been dismissed as “creative accountancy” by a health watchdog, which is warning that patients are continuing to suffer the effects of cuts.

The PCT, responsible for planning and commissioning health services in the county, had a debt of £47m at the end of the last financial year but that deficit is on course to be wiped out by the end of this financial year.

The financial turnaround is set to be achieved partly by cuts to services, including mental health and the renegotiated GPs out-of-hours service, totalling £18.2m.

The remaining £28.8m will be diverted from the PCT's £92.5m “uplift” for 2007/8, extra money from the Department of Health which is intended to cover rising costs and the development of services.

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David Stonehouse, the PCT's director of finance, said it would mark a fresh start for the organisation, placing it on a firm financial footing and enabling it to develop more services for patients.

“It's been a very tough 12 months. All the organisations within the NHS in Norfolk are working very hard to manage within very tight resources,” he said.

“We will need to continue to manage our resources very robustly but it's certainly an improvement on the headlines we have been used to looking at in Norfolk.

“I'm not saying it's all rosy but the underlying problems in terms of NHS finances locally have hopefully been secured. We are anxious not to get into the position we have been in in the past.”

The news came as it emerged that NHS in the region is set to have a £90m surplus at the end of the financial year.

Nationally the NHS is likely to have a record surplus of £1.8bn by the end of this financial year, just two years after it was £500 million in the red.

But the Norfolk announcement was met with scepticism by the Norfolk-based National Patients' Network, whose chairman Ian Semmons said: “We should treat it with extreme caution to say the least and look at the impact on patient services where they are cut and continue to be cut.

“It's hard to give any credibility to these figures because the NHS does have a reputation for creative accountancy.”

“We see a continued reduction in the quality of services, both now and in the future.

“It's a political gesture. The government wants to say the NHS is not in the deficit, it's in the black, but that's patently not true.

“It's unfortunate that the government can't come clean and that the PCT won't stand up to that sort of pressure. It's patients' well-being and safety that are compromised.”

Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP and Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: “It's clearly essential that the PCT acted to clear the deficit because if you are lurching from one financial crisis to another you can never develop services in Norfolk.

“Part of the savings that have been achieved have been as a result of doing what a PCT should be doing - getting the best deal for Norfolk patients.”

Mr Lamb said he was especially concerned at cuts to mental health services, and was uneasy that money had been diverted from the PCT's uplift.

“This is the last year of big funding increases for the NHS and this money has been available to enhance and improve health services and ensure, for example, better cancer survival rates and better recovery rates for stroke victims.

“The brutal truth is an enormous chunk of that money is going simply on paying past debts and wasn't available for improving services.”

Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, said it was “psychologically important” for the PCT to have cleared its debt, but added: “It's taking from the right hand and putting it in the left. Anybody can do that in the short term but to make it sustainable is the real challenge. In another year there will be more problems that will need more money and more support.

“It's true that they can start from the beginning again, and they can't use the excuse that they can't do anything because they have got to get the books balanced.

“We can't get in the same mess again - otherwise they will be looking for new jobs.”

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