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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Cross-border operations lose Cumbria health trust £3.5m

Hundreds of operations have been moved from Carlisle to a hospital across the county border – losing a Cumbrian NHS trust £3.5m.

Mahesh Dhebar photo
Mahesh Dhebar

The move has sparked a fierce debate, with health chiefs insisting that shifting more than 750 hip and knee procedures out of Cumbria to Hexham was in the best interests of patients and meant the surgery could be done quicker.

But a retired consultant has questioned the motives of Northumbria Healthcare, the trust brought in to help turnaround the fortunes of the troubled Cumberland Infirmary and West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven.

Mahesh Dhebar believes that instead of helping, the Carlisle and Whitehaven hospitals – which are facing a deficit of £27m this year – are now finding themselves worse off financially than they were before.

Mr Dhebar, who retired in November, is concerned about the number of patients being sent to Hexham for knee and hip replacements, with income from these lucrative procedures going into Northumbria’s coffers.

Official figures from Cumbria’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) show that in the past 12 months, more than 750 Cumbrian patients had hip and knee procedures in Hexham, resulting in more than £3.5m leaving the county.

Bosses insist that all decisions are being taken purely with patients at heart, to reduce waiting lists and improve safety and quality of services. They say that as a result of their close working relationship with Hexham, the number of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for orthopedic surgery dropped from 315 in January 2013 to 154 by December 2013.

But Mr Dhebar fears this is the thin end of the wedge, with Northumbria currently building an expensive new emergency care hospital in Cramlington, Northumberland.

“What they are planning to do is move services from Whitehaven to Carlisle, then Carlisle to North Tyneside,” he claims.

“This should not be allowed to happen. I don’t believe they are a good partner. At the moment they are asset-stripping. I think they should go, and we should be left to deal with our own problems here in north Cumbria.”

Documents seen by The Cumberland News confirm that a number of other consultants, from both hospitals, share his concerns about the takeover.

Northumbria Healthcare was chosen by previous bosses as the preferred partner to acquire the struggling Carlisle and Whitehaven hospitals.

It is currently acting as a so-called buddy trust, providing support.

In a joint statement, the two trusts said: “We are extremely disappointed that a retired clinician does not support the vast improvements taking place.

“It is baffling how anyone could think it’s a bad thing for patients to be treated promptly, to a high standard and to their satisfaction. Without our trusts working together, this reduction in waiting times would not have happened.”

But Mr Dhebar believes a two-tier healthcare system is already beginning to emerge – with staff and services gradually being moved out of the West Cumberland Hospital to Carlisle. This is leaving the Whitehaven hospital unable to provide “prompt and proper” care in an emergency.

Mr Dhebar asks why there has still been no public consultation – as he believes is legally required – about the changes that are already being made.

It was also announced this week that three junior doctors have been pulled out of the West Cumberland Hospital amid concerns about supervision. Health Education North East (HENE), which supplies the trainees fears staffing shortages mean the hospital, which is struggling to recruit consultants, cannot properly train them.

Bosses claim the Hexham arrangement was introduced to ease waiting times, putting on weekend lists there to help.

But Mr Dhebar said: “Why is Northumbria not using facilities in Cumbria for weekend work?

“The loss of income forced by this arrangement is accruing to the already bankrupt north Cumbria trust.”

Estephanie Dunn, the Royal College of Nursing’s operational manager, added: “The trust needs to clarify whether there is capacity to undertake this work in Cumbria and if not, explain what measures it is taking so that local people do not have to travel unacceptable distances to receive treatment.

“Funding has been allocated to deliver this service in Cumbria. So it would be inappropriate if certain services were being reconfigured to bolster a service elsewhere.”

Copeland MP Jamie Reed said: “Public support for the takeover was always based upon the support of local clinicians. If that support is no longer there, then we need to understand what the problems are so that we can address these – otherwise we have a very serious problem indeed.

David Mackay, north Cumbria’s clinical director for orthopaedics, said: “The vast majority of our staff welcome the support we are getting from Northumbria and believe the acquisition is for the common good.

“We are doing some extra lists in north Cumbria but have to match this to our bed capacity.”

Dr David Rogers, medical director at the CCG, added that ultimately patients have a choice as to where operations are carried out.

Carlisle MP John Stevenson said he believes because of geography, the Cumberland Infirmary would remain a key centre for local healthcare.

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