NHS pain is Osborne's gain

Philip HuntPhil Hunt calls for money meant for our struggling NHS not to be used to line Treasury coffers
The revelation from the UK Statistics Authority that expenditure on the NHS had fallen in real terms in the 2011/12 financial year will have come as no surprise to a cash-strapped health service suffering massive financial pain.
For months, the government has made misleading boasts about NHS spending whilst attempting to shift the blame for its difficulties to an NHS faced with increasing demands. This has been compounded by cuts in local government spending on adult social care, with the health service facing  a further two and a half years with no increase in its overall budget.
A recent analysis by the King’s Fund think-tank warns there is a real risk that NHS bodies may be forced into maintaining financial control at the expense of patient care quality. It points, as by way of example, to signs of waiting times rising whilst hospitals struggle with their finances.
So, it is all the more surprising to learn that almost £3bn of Department of Health funding has been returned to the Treasury in the past two years. To date, little convincing explanation has been given. The Commons Health Select Committee is so concerned that it has the NHS Chief Executive for a report. DH officials may argue that most of the under-spend comes from capital programmes which are one off payments that couldn’t be used to support on-going investment in staff. But it is a large amount and could have been used to fill gaps in immediate health and social care services. At the very least it would have bought invaluable equipment in hospital and the community.
The highly influential Public Accounts Committee has pointed out that financial surpluses disguise the fact that a significant minority of NHS organisations are in trouble. This is happening at the same time as Labour’s latest ‘NHS Check’ report has shown that an estimated 52,000 patients in England were denied treatment and kept off NHS waiting lists last year due to cost restrictions. Overall, 47 PCTs have restricted one or more treatments. Patients have been left in pain, discomfort, unable to work or paying to go private as cataract, varicose vein, and carpal tunnel syndrome operations have all been affected.
Evidence of accelerating postcode lottery across the NHS undermines claims by Ministers that rationing by cost is not happening. Dr Foster’s latest Hospitals Guide, published earlier this week, paints a worrying picture of over-stretched hospitals struggling to maintain the quality and safety of patient care. Hospitals are as busy as ever whilst resources are stretched ever tighter.
What an extraordinary situation then for the Health department to have handed money back to George Osborne. In the Lords today, I will try to get to the bottom of this and hopefully bring re-assurance that money meant for the NHS will actually be spent on the NHS.
Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is a Shadow Health Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 6th December 2012 

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