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Suffolk: Transport groups struggle with demand for hospital runs

PUBLISHED: 13:29 14 January 2013 | UPDATED: 13:29 14 January 2013

John Phillips with a Go START community transport vehicle

John Phillips with a Go START community transport vehicle

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DOZENS of sick people in Suffolk are at risk of missing vital hospital appointments because they do not have access to transport, it was warned last night.

A countywide community transport provider has raised grave concerns, saying it is struggling to cope with demand for its services since the NHS tightened its criteria for providing patients with free lifts.

Suffolk Community Transport (SCT), which supports the county’s 19 individual operators, is calling for urgent talks with health chiefs after several of its members reported they were “at breaking point” with requests for hospital runs.

Among the worst effected are operators in Woodbridge, Haverhill, Sudbury, Felixstowe, Newmarket, Halesworth, Thetford, Beccles, Bungay, Stowmarket and Southwold.

Last night, a NHS spokesman said some talks with the transport organisation had already taken place, but he insisted that “eligible” people still had access to free hospital transport.

But SCT director John Phillips, who also runs Go START community transport in Sudbury, said the situation had worsened since the NHS in Suffolk and Norfolk introduced a single point of assessment in 2011. He said the changes were introduced to “save money” by preventing patients who could afford to pay for transport from accessing it free of charge via their GP.

The move is believed to have saved the NHS £300,000 across the two counties, according to Mr Phillips. But he warned: “Under the current arrangements, the situation can only end one way and that is leaving many vulnerable people unable to find a way of getting to their hospital appointment, which could seriously jeopardise their longer term health. The NHS cannot simply keep brushing this issue under the table. We need to sit down together and find a practical and sustainable solution.”

Mr Phillips said patients were often led to believe by NHS call centres that community transport was “free and readily available” which is not the case.

While local services offer subsidised fairs because all of the drivers are volunteers, transport groups have to charge around 35p per mile to cover costs.

Mr Phillips’ words were echoed by Lyn Burgess, manager for 3 Counties Transport in Haverhill, who said demand had trebled in the past year.

She said: “We are doing at least three hospital runs per day and another problem we are encountering is the distance to somewhere like Papworth Hospital [in Cambridgeshire], which is an 80-mile round trip and costs a lot of money for a patient to find.

“A taxi to Addenbrookes [in Cambridge] could cost £30 each way from Haverhill, whereas we do it for around £13 return, but we are struggling to keep up with the demand. It’s terrible if we have to turn someone away because most people are already worried about having to go to hospital in the first place, let alone having to stress about how they will get there.”

Ms Burgess said the NHS needed to be “more lenient” with their criteria, and medical professionals needed to explain the situation more clearly to patients who were expected to find their own way to appointments.

An NHS spokesman said no-one eligible was being penalised and national guidelines were simply being applied properly to make the most appropriate use of taxpayers’ money instead of the “adhoc” situation that existed before. He said: “We have already begun dialogue with a representative of Suffolk Community Transport to talk about its concerns and have arranged another meeting later in the month.

“However, we must stress that there have been no changes to the criteria for free NHS funded transport, the guidelines for which were issued by the Department of Health. Since September 2011 these national guidelines have been applied to ensure that those patients who are eligible for free NHS funded transport are given it.”

Between September 2011 and March 2012 demand across Suffolk for transport to non-emergency hospital appointments via community operators increased by 31%.

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