Outcry as NHS group proposes temporary ban on non-vital operations
Doctors' leaders have called on the Government to take action after it emerged that a local NHS body is considering putting a temporary ban on non-vital operations.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that "it cannot be right that the public will be effectively denied access to healthcare because the local CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) has run out of money".
The BMA said that St Helens Clinical Commissioning Group's (CCG) proposal to suspend all non-essential hospital referrals for four months was "another sign of how desperately under-funded the NHS is" as it called on ministers to "step up their commitment to resolving this crisis".
The proposal, from the Merseyside NHS body, is part of a bid to help hospitals cope with increased demand during the winter despite a large funding gap.
NHS England rated the CCG "inadequate" in its 2015-16 annual assessment.
Commenting on the news, Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the BMA's GP committee, said: "This is an unacceptable decision which highlights the incredible financial pressure facing general practice and its impact on patient care. It cannot be right that the public will be effectively denied access to healthcare because the local CCG has run out of money.
"What apparently may not be urgent at first presentation and is therefore not referred could turn out to be very serious in the long term. Many cases of cancer are subsequently diagnosed following routine referrals of patients who have undifferentiated symptoms early on in their illness.
"The cost to the health service of delaying referrals could ultimately be much greater in the long term as more complex and costly problems develop as a result.
"This is yet another sign of how desperately under-funded the NHS now is and how the Government need to step up their commitment to resolving this crisis."
CCG lay chair Geoffrey Appleton said: "To explain it in simple terms, imagine our NHS budget is your household budget and every year the cost of living goes up but your salary doesn't increase; the result is money becomes tighter and tighter.
"Now imagine another relative comes to live with you and because of their health needs are unable to work and cannot contribute financially. How would you manage?"
He added: "Although we are trying to make as many efficiency savings as we can (buying the same or similar services for less and reducing waste), our funding gap is so large we know these measures alone will not bring a resolution and we are faced with the prospect of proposing to suspend, reduce or withdraw certain services.
"We recognise these proposals will not be popular but we will be involving those who want to have their say in the discussions and we welcome your thoughts about how we should be making cost savings."
The proposal, along with another to put a two-year suspension on IVF services for patients aged under 37, is under public consultation until October 5.
The NHS England regional office will review the proposals before a decision is made because of the CCG's inadequate rating.
An NHS spokeswoman said: "Decisions when prioritising resources are always very difficult for commissioners but it is up to CCGs to make the best decisions for their area and work with hospitals to plan and manage demand over winter.
"St Helens CCG is actively engaging with its local population on the best way to ensure patients have their care prioritised over the busy months for the NHS.
"The 18-week target is a national objective which all CCGs and hospitals should be striving to meet."