'HOSPITAL CAMPAIGNERS FEAR MERGERS COULD BE A THREAT'

Lymington Times – 28 January 2006

Although the controversy over New Forest hospital closures has died down while local health execu­tives draw up new plans, campaign­ers have continued their action with a warning that impending Primary Care Trust mergers may pose another threat.

The New Forest PCT insisted it was serious about implementing what was agreed after the uproar caused by its unpopular proposals, and looming mergers would not in­terfere. Late last year, the trust backed down over bed-closure plans and promised to reassess its healthcare shake-up with more in­put from locals.

A three point letter was recently sent to PCT Chief Executive, John Richards, by the Save Our Commu­nity Hospitals (SOCH) group outlin­ing their continued concerns, while members also joined a national con­ference in Parliament coordinating similar campaigns across the coun­try.

London conference

New Forest East MP, Julian Lewis, said of the recently formed Commu­nity Hospitals Acting Together, led by Graham Stuart MP:

 "Only local and national solidarity will have a chance of saving these vital compo­nents of the NHS”.

He was joined at the London sum­mit by figures including Julia Badham, chairman of the Milford League of Hospital and Community Friends; Sir John Curtiss, chairman of the Milford Hospital Action Group; and Joe Grimshaw of the League of Friends of the Lymington Hosnitals.

Campaign letter

In SOCH's letter, Dr Lewis sought reassurances over the PCT's inten­tions of designating hospitals as spe­cialist centres with services purchased by GP practices. National plans to merge PCTs would make such a system problematic, he said, and he feared extra pressure on vol­unteer leagues of friends.

 “There is no chance of their sur­vival unless a single organisation runs each hospital, if not all of them. Can you reassure us that the PCT is not trying to shuffle off responsibility for these hospitals onto GP practices incapable of taking them over?”

News on the Fenwick had initially been encouraging, he continued, but cancelling its contract with Lyndhurst surgery for doing work at the hospital had "disheartened" its supporters. He questioned why it was happening now if it was genu­inely intended to reopen with a busi­ness plan later this year.

He also warned Mr Richards of low morale among the trust's workers and

"a danger of [hospitals] being run down, with staff not being re­placed, and closed beds such as 10 at Fordingbridge not being reopened".

He concluded:

"We have, for the time being, reduced the public cam­paign on the understanding that the PCT is serious about actually carry­ing out the change of heart it says it has undergone over the future of these hospitals. The proof of that will lie in the setting out of an orderly timetable."

PCT response

A PCT spokesperson responded:

“I can reassure local people and Dr Lewis that the PCT is serious about implementing the agreement that was reached recently to develop the role of local hospitals.

"We are working with local stake­holders, practices and with leagues of friends to develop plans for each hospital as outlined at our public board meeting in November. We are doing our utmost to involve local people in this planning but we are not relying on volunteer bodies to put these plans together.

“I would also like to reassure peo­ple that organisational change in the NHS will not impede the develop­ment of these plans and the running of the hospitals will pass to the PCT’s successor organisation. Neverthe­less, we expect that GP practices will be much more closely involved in de­fining the role of these hospitals, as indeed is appropriate.”

Health mergers

Two options for PCT mergers are currently out for consultation by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Strate­gic Health Authority (SHA) as part of a national strategy to reduce man­agement costs and improve health planning. The first would unite Hampshire's seven trusts, excluding Southampton and Portsmouth, into a single organisation, while the second would see them reduced to three in­stead.

More widely, Hampshire SHA it­self is set for merger, either into a sin­gle South East England body, or one of two, with the Isle of Wight and the Thames Valley. The discussions will end on March 22 with the initial findings sent to the Department for Health on April 12.