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Friday, December 16, 2011

NHS hospitals needed £200 million in bailouts and loans

England’s NHS hospitals needed at least £200 million in bailouts and loans as they struggled to balance their books while also meeting tough savings targets, according to a spending watchdog. The Audit Commission said nine NHS trusts “failed to achieve financial balance” and many more applied for extra funding from managers and the Government, although overall performance “continues to be good”.

Health bodies spent £289m on redundancy payments but the number of staff employed in hospitals actually rose by almost 8,000.

Dozens were found at fault with the “value for money” they offer and a fifth of all NHS bodies failed to meet their savings targets despite cutting back on staff and the number of patients they treat.

The Audit Commission, the public spending watchdog that is being scrapped, warned that health service providers face even tougher times ahead as savings become harder to find and Government spending increases dry up.

Andy McKeon, managing director for health at the Audit Commission, said: “It is impressive that the NHS overall performed so well financially last year, even if some organisations struggled.

“But there is no room for complacency. Tighter funding, and the need to continue to improve services and implement reforms, will make the next three years much tougher.  NHS organisations will need to make a determined effort to find further recurrent savings while continuing to deliver high quality services.”

The watchdog looked at the 2010-11 accounts for Primary Care Trusts, which pay for treatment; hospitals not including the semi-independent Foundation Trusts; and the regional Strategic Health Authorities.

It found that they were running a £1.5 billion surplus and had actually underspent by £272 millon on the £2.95 billion in capital expenditure they were given by the Department of Health, twice as much as recorded the previous year.

But seven hospitals and two PCTs failed to break even, one fewer than in 2009-10, with the biggest deficit of £41m recorded by South London Healthcare NHS Trust.

At least 16 NHS organisations needed additional financial support from PCTs which is never paid back “thereby obscuring their real financial health”.

Managers gave out £90 million to hospitals, while the Department of Health issued loans totalling £34 million to four hospitals and also gave £76 million to two trusts which did not even have enough money to pay back loans.

Ministers want to cut management costs by 45 per cent at SHAs and PCTs, which are being restructured, and they did let 5,713 people go with average pay-offs of £40,000 each.

But the headcount at hospitals actually rose by 7,616 and only fell by 27 in the 10 SHAs.

The Audit Commission did not find any NHS body’s accounts were not “true and fair”, but it did issue “qualified Value For Money conclusions” for 27 hospitals and 18 PCTs, suggesting they had problems with “financial resilience” or “economy, efficiency and effectiveness”.

The Audit Commission warns next year will be “a more financially challenging year” as there will be no “significant real-terms increase” in the central budget, so trusts will require “determined effort and strong leadership”.

NHS killer quango rationing body rejects prostate cancer drug

A drug that can give advanced prostate cancer sufferers an extra two months to live has been rejected by the NHS’s rationing body. The National Institute for Curbing Expenditure (Nice) said that the medicine, called cabazitaxel, was not a cost-effective treatment for men who have already undergone hormone therapy.

It said that although the drug did extend survival for patients with advanced prostate cancer, it was “concerned” about the side-effects experienced in clinical trials and that at an average cost of £22,000 per patient it was too expensive.

The move comes after an important study commissioned by The Lancet Oncology warned that the cost of cancer care is becoming unsustainable in developed countries, and that it makes no sense to keep giving “toxic” and costly drugs to patients with just a few weeks to live.

Sir Andrew Dillon, the chief executive of Nice, said: “The committee concluded that cabazitaxel would not be a cost effective use of limited NHS resources.”

But Owen Sharp, chief executive of the Prostate Cancer Charity, said: “Cabazitaxel is an important treatment, only recently licensed for use here in the UK, which can help to extend the lives of men in the final stages of prostate cancer for whom existing treatments have stopped working.

“These men currently have very few treatment options open to them when their cancer reaches this advanced stage. Increasing the number of treatments that may extend the lives of these men and allow them to spend precious time with their families is essential.”

Prostate cancer is the most common form of the disease among British men, with 37,000 cases diagnosed every year.

Some men live for years with slow-growing tumours, but in other cases it develops aggressively and kills after spreading to other organs.

Treatments often attempt to reduce the production of testosterone, a hormone that fuels the growth of the tumours, but patients can develop resistance to this type of therapy.

In clinical trials, men with advanced prostate cancer who were given cabazitaxel in combination with prednisone, a drug that suppresses the immune system, lived for an extra 10 weeks.

But Nice said there was “uncertainty” about the new drug’s effect on patients’ hearts and livers, and it did not meet its criteria for being considered as an end-of-life drug worthy of additional funding.

It means that anyone who hopes to obtain the new type of chemotherapy on the NHS must make an individual application through the Cancer Drugs Fund.

Nice is still assessing the value of a daily pill that can treat advanced prostate cancer, called abiraterone acetate, which is believed to have kept the Lockerbie bomber alive longer than expected.

NHS managers restricting access to crucial scans and tests to save money

NHS managers are trying to restrict access to crucial tests and scans in a move that could mean diseases being diagnosed later. 

An investigation has found that a quarter of Primary Care Trusts are either investigating how many patients individual GP practices send for examinations or looking for ways to reduce the numbers.

In addition, a handful are identifying “excessive” use of the tests or setting upper targets while others have completely stopped letting doctors have direct access to the scans.

Experts said the tactics could lead to patients being diagnosed later with diseases such as cancer, which research shows lowers survival chances.

Dr Clare Gerada, head of the Royal College of GPs, said: “This is about money and finances driving behaviour by the PCT – not about putting patients first.”

Cancer Research UK’s director of policy, Sarah Woolnough, added: “It is very worrying to hear of PCTs setting referral targets and decommissioning direct access to tests that could speed up a cancer diagnosis.”

Meanwhile, official figures show that even patients who are being referred to hospitals for tests are being forced to wait longer than a year ago.

Department of Health statistics show that 10,700 patients were waiting more than six weeks for any one of 15 key diagnostic tests at the end of July, a rise of 7,000 on the figure for the previous year.

The Government has told health service managers to improve direct access to diagnostic scans such as MRI, CT and ultrasound in order to improve early diagnosis of cancer and heart disease.

But an investigation by GP magazine suggests that many trusts want to reduce the number of patients sent directly to tests at specialist centres in order to save money.

Of the 116 Primary Care Trusts contacted, 28 per cent said they had either started looking into how many referrals GPs carried out across their area, or were planning to do so. A quarter are helping practices reduce inappropriate access.

Nine trusts said they had found surgeries that either sent too many or too few patients for tests while two are considering introducing upper and lower targets.

Five PCTs have scrapped direct access altogether to at least one type of test.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, a leading member of the British Medical Association, said restricting access to scans risks “turning back the clock” on plans to diagnose disease early.

“An intelligent approach would be to have guidelines for appropriate use of diagnostics and incorporate them into the pathway.”

The moves are the latest example of how managers are rationing patient care in an attempt to make unprecedented efficiency savings totalling £20billion across the NHS by 2015.

NHS pays £20 for a loaf of bread that costs £2 in a supermarket

The NHS is spending more than £20 for a loaf of gluten-free bread, 10 times more than the £2 charged for a standard small (400g) gluten-free loaf in Sainsbury’s.
Gluten provokes painful inflammation of the bowel in people who have an immune-response allergy to the protein, found in wheat, rye and barley products. The condition is known as Coeliac Disease.

In the past, gluten-free products were difficult and costly to get hold of, and many people obtained them via prescription. They are now commonly found on supermarket shelves and their cost has come down.

While they cost more than standard versions, typically up to twice as much, the NHS appears to be paying well over the odds.

Darren Millar, the Conservative shadow minister for health in the Welsh Assembly, found out that the NHS in Wales paid £984,185 for 47,684 gluten-free loaves last year — or £20.64 a loaf. In an answer to a question he put to the assembly, he was also told that packets of gluten-free pasta were costing the NHS £11.54 per bag. Similar packs cost £2 in supermarkets.

Ginger snap biscuits cost £10.07, compared with £2.35 in the shops, and wheat-free gravy mix £15.21, rather than £2.59.

Mr Millar said: “It’s currently costing the NHS 10 times more for this bread than the price in a supermarket.

“Many taxpayers will question why they are also footing the bill for hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of snacks such as biscuits and cakes.”

“Foods of this type have become much more widely available and yet the number of prescriptions has risen.”

A spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “It smacks of incompetence that the Welsh NHS is paying so much more than they are available for in the shops.

“This doesn’t look like taxpayers are getting value for money.”

Dr David Bailey, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Wales, added: “It makes little sense for gluten-free foods to be prescribed.”

In 2010, the NHS in Wales, which serves a population of three million, spent just over £2 million on gluten-free products.

Given that the population of Britain is some 20 times that, it is likely that the overall NHS bill stands at £40 million, although in England some patients pay prescription charges.

Mr Millar commented: “That’s a heck of a sum of money. When cash is short, should we really be spending public money on such things? I think not.”

Sarah Sleet, chief executive of the charity Coeliac UK, said the high costs resulted from bureaucratic supply chains in the NHS.

She called for greater efficiency but said such items should still be available on prescription for sufferers.

“It’s in the interest of the NHS to keep people with coeliac healthy, and prescriptions play an important role in this,” she said.

A spokesman for Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh health minister, said: “Work is now under way to identify savings that can be made in reducing the number of gluten-free products prescribed by the NHS.”

NHS rationing operations- cataracts, hips, knees and tonsils in the firing line

Hip replacements, cataract surgery and tonsil removal are among operations now being rationed in a bid to save the NHS money.
Two thirds of health trusts in England are rationing treatments for “non-urgent” conditions as part of the drive to reduce costs in the NHS by £20bn over the next four years. One in three primary-care trusts (PCTs) has expanded the list of procedures it will restrict funding to in the past 12 months.

Examples of the rationing now being used include:

Hip and knee replacements only being allowed where patients are in severe pain. Overweight patients will be made to lose weight before being considered for an operation.Cataract operations being withheld from patients until their sight problems “substantially” affect their ability to work.Patients with varicose veins only being operated on if they are suffering “chronic continuous pain”, ulceration or bleeding.Tonsillectomy (removing tonsils) only to be carried out in children if they have had seven bouts of tonsillitis in the previous year.Grommets to improve hearing in children only being inserted in “exceptional circumstances” and after monitoring for six months.Funding has also been cut in some areas for IVF treatment on the NHS.

The alarming figures emerged from a survey of 111 PCTs by the health-service magazine GP, using the Freedom of Information Act.

Doctors are known to be concerned about how the new rationing is working – and how it will affect their relationships with patients.

Birmingham is looking at reducing operations in gastroenterology, gynaecology, dermatology and orthopaedics. Parts of east London were among the first to introduce rationing, where some patients are being referred for homeopathic treatments instead of conventional treatment.

Medway had deferred treatment for non-urgent procedures this year while Dorset is “looking at reducing the levels of limited effectiveness procedures”.

Chris Naylor, a senior researcher at the health think tank the King’s Fund, said the rationing decisions being made by PCTs were a consequence of the savings the NHS was being asked to find.

“Blunt approaches like seeking an overall reduction in local referral rates may backfire, by reducing necessary referrals – which is not good for patients and may fail to save money in the long run,” he said. “There are always rationing decisions that have to go on in any health service. But at the moment healthcare organisations are under more pressure than they have been for a long time and this is a sign of what is happening across many areas of the NHS.”

According to responses from the 111 trusts to freedom-of-information requests, 64 per cent of them have now introduced rationing policies for non-urgent treatments and those of limited clinical value. Of those PCTs that have not introduced restrictions, a third are working with GPs to reduce referrals or have put in place peer-review systems to assess referrals.

In the last year, 35 per cent of PCTs have added procedures to lists of treatments they no longer fund because they deem them to be non-urgent or of limited clinical value.

Some trusts expect to save over £1m by restricting referrals from GPs.

Chaand Nagpaul, a member of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, said he was concerned about PCTs applying different low-priority thresholds and rationing access to treatments on the basis of local policies.

He said the Government needed to decide on a consistent set of national standards of “low priority” treatments to help remove post-code lotteries in provision. “Patients and the public recognise that with limited resources we need to make the maximum health gains and so there needs to be prioritisation. What is inequitable is that different PCTs are applying different thresholds and criteria,” he said.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “Decisions on the appropriate treatments should be made by clinicians in the local NHS in line with the best available clinical evidence and Nice [National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence] guidance. There should be no blanket bans because what is suitable for one patient may not be suitable for another.”

NHS reform Bill survives fatal Lords vote

Controversial reforms to the NHS have avoided a potentially “fatal” delay in the House of Lords, to the relief of ministers. Amid deep concern in the medical profession and among many members of the public, some peers had tried to have the Health and Social Care Bill thrown out or subjected to detailed scrutiny that would have ruined the Government’s timetable.

It is feared by opponents that the wording of the legislation will remove the Secretary of State’s duty to provide healthcare for all, while plans to widen competition will see the back-door privatisation of the NHS.

But following two days of debate by 100 members of the upper house, and pressure applied by ministers and whips to Tories and Lib Dems, attempts to delay or thrown out the Bill were defeated comfortably in the biggest turnouts seen in the Lords for more than a decade.

A motion by Lord Owen, a former health minister and SDP leader, to let a special committee spend until Christmas studying the constitutional impact of the reforms was rejected by a margin of 330 to 262.

Labour’s Lord Rea had wanted the second reading to be refused altogether but this proposal was lost by 354 votes to 220.

Baroness Williams of Crosby, the Lib Dem grandee who had been among the first to raise fears over the Bill, abstained on the critical Lord Owen vote and went with the Government on the Lord Rea motion.

The results means the Bill, which seeks to remove two tiers of NHS management and give more power to GPs and patients, will now be considered line-by-line in committee stage in the Lords and remains on track to receive Royal Assent by next summer.

It has already survived a rebellion by Lib Dem activists in the spring and an unprecedented “pause” in the parliamentary proceedings for doctors’ concerns to be heard, which led to competition plans being watered down.

But even the Government accepts that more changes will be made to contentious areas.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “The vote today moves us one step closer to delivering a world-class health service that puts patients at its heart and hands more power to health professionals. We now look forward to working with the Lords to scrutinise the Bill during Committee Stage to improve our plans further.”

Labour said it would continue to call for “drastic changes”.

The plans had been criticised in the debate by well-known figures including Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, who described the Bill as “unnecessary and, I’m afraid to say, irresponsible”.

After the vote Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of BMA Council, said: “It remains the BMA position that the Health and Social Care Bill should be withdrawn, or if not that it should be substantially amended, and we will continue to raise our concerns at every available opportunity as the Bill progresses through the House of Lords.

“The BMA continues to have many areas of concern, including the need for assurance that increasing patients’ choice of provider for specific elements of their care won’t be given priority over the development of integrated services and fair access.

“We also need to see an explicit provision that the Secretary of State will retain ultimate responsibility for the provision of comprehensive health services.”

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