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Hospitals could feel the strain as funding for GPs is slashedA

By Lisa Smyth

Funding for family doctors in Northern Ireland has been slashed by £3.6m — leading to predictions of soaring hospital waiting lists and patients being denied treatments.

The Health Minister came under fire yesterday as a leading doctors’ union warned people with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke could suffer as clinics to help them manage their illness are cut, which is likely to mean a surge in the |number of emergency hospital admissions.

Last Friday, the Health & Social Care Board sent a letter to GP practices to inform them the GP budget in Northern Ireland is to be cut by £3.6m — an average cut of £10,000 per surgery and about 1.5% of the overall primary care budget — just days after it emerged the Department of Health is to be temporarily |spared swingeing cuts from |Westminster.

Among the areas they are cutting funding to are additional funds to improve access to GPs, minor surgery, long-term conditions management, locum cover, and the IT system which oversees the management of warfarin |treatment.

The development has led the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland to accuse Health Minister Michael McGimpsey of doing a U-turn on his pledge to protect frontline services from the financial crisis facing the health service.

Dr Brian Dunn, chairman of the BMA (NI) General Practitioner’s Committee (GPC), said: “If general practice and the services it provides isn’t a frontline service then I don’t know what is. Patients are going to suffer.

“I have been inundated by family doctors from across Northern Ireland who are angry, dismayed and disappointed at this cut to frontline services.

“One of the areas being targeted in the cuts is minor surgery. GPs have been doing more and more minor surgery to reduce the pressure on hospitals but it is going to become increasingly|

difficult to maintain this service with these cuts.

“For example, where a GP would have treated a patient with a sebaceous cyst they may not be able to do this, and the patient will therefore be referred to the hospital but this is something the hospital could classify as cosmetic and refuse to do it.”

Dr Dunn also issued a grim warning for the health service in Northern Ireland over the winter months should the H1N1 virus re-emerge. Portglenone GP and BMA (NI) GPC member Dr Brian Patterson added to the warning: “If swine flu returns again we will have difficulty delivering all our services.

“It will become a case of having to prioritise and that will mean services going.

“My own practice has lost over £30,000 over the last couple of years due to cuts and these further cuts are coming.

“The reality is that if any small business lost £30,000 they couldn’t keep going. GPs will do their best to continue delivering services but there is no doubt there will be an impact.

“I have been a GP for some 30 years and have never seen anything like this happen before.”

Dr Tom Black, BMA (NI) GPC member and Londonderry GP, also hit out at the cuts.

“This is an unprecedented panic measure,”he said.

“General practice is already under severe pressure and instead of being able to take on much needed additional staff, many practices are looking at reducing staff numbers or cutting hours.

“GPs want to provide as much treatment as possible to people in the community, but this cut may well result in an increase in hospital admissions and a decreased ability of practices to co-operate with schemes that allow shorter hospital stays, leading to increased costs to the health service.

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