Health chief responds to Star's concerns

HEALTH secretary Alan Johnson today responded to Suffolk's concerns over changes to emergency heart attack care - and agreed that all major healthcare decisions should be subject to public consultation.

HEALTH secretary Alan Johnson today responded to Suffolk's concerns over changes to emergency heart attack care - and agreed that all major healthcare decisions should be subject to public consultation.

The Evening Star wrote to the top politician asking him to intervene over plans to treat urgent heart attack victims in specialist centres at Norwich, Papworth or Basildon, but not set up a similar centre in Ipswich.

Although the controversial proposal, which would have meant patients faced long journeys for life-saving treatment, was opposed by patient groups and Ipswich Hospital, health bosses at East of England Specialised Commissioning decided there was no need to consult.

The Star asked Mr Johnson to demand a review and thorough consultation, and to listen to the views of the county's patients.

In his letter Mr Johnson agreed that “all major improvements in the health service should be led by the NHS locally - free from national political interference - and must always be backed by a full public consultation”.

But he pointed out that East of England Strategic Health Authority (SHA) had consulted on Towards the Best, Together, which included in one of its 65 points plans to set up primary angioplasty centres.

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The SHA said this general debate replaced the need for a consultation on the specific changes. However the document did not say where the centres would be or what the impact would be on people in east Suffolk.

Meanwhile Ipswich Hospital responded to that consultation by saying three centres would not be enough, while clinicians also raised concerns. As such, the SHA knew the plans were controversial when it decided to plough ahead with them.

The plans are now being reviewed, but the SHA is still refusing to conduct a full consultation.

What is your message to Alan Johnson? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Dear Sir

I have read your open letter and readers' concerns about the future of heart attack services in east Suffolk and, in particular, plans to create three new specialist Heart Attack Centres for the east of England, while patients will continue to access other cardiac care at Ipswich Hospital.

It is a great testament to the NHS that people trust their local hospitals and passionately defend the services they provide. If changes are being proposed for the region, the public rightly demands reassurance that this will result in better, safer care.

From the day I was appointed Health Secretary I have been absolutely clear that all major improvements in the health service should be led by the NHS locally - free from national political interference - and must always be backed by a full public consultation.

It would be wrong for me to issue diktats from Whitehall on how services should be run in east Suffolk and meddle with local decision-making. Indeed as your paper pointed out, the East of England's unique geography presents unique challenges. Who better to respond to those challenges than the people who know the area best?

Local authority Health Overview and Scrutiny Committees, which include elected local councillors have a particularly important role to play in the shaping of local health services.

We set these committees up to provide the checks and balances for any major reorganisation proposals. If a committee is unhappy with the way the NHS has run a public consultation or the content of the proposals, they have the power to refer plans to me as Health Secretary.

I then immediately pass these on to an independent panel of experts for consideration and advice before making a final decision. I have always made clear that I find it hard to foresee circumstances where I will not accept the advice of that expert panel.

I have sought clarification from NHS East of England that the proper public consultation process has been followed in relation to proposals to create the new specialist centres. They advised me that a public consultation involving more than 7,000 people took place between May and August 2008 as part of its wider consultation on Towards the Best, Together- the strategic vision for the NHS in the region.

I understand the Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee had a number of opportunities to oppose the proposals but in fact supported them. This was confirmed in a letter to NHS East of England on May 15, 2009.

However, I am aware that NHS East of England has decided to postpone changes to heart attack services in East Suffolk while it undertakes a further urgent review of the proposals.

To help inform this review, it has asked Professor Roger Boyle, the government's chief advisor on heart disease, to provide assurance that the proposed arrangements for the treatment of heart attacks offer the best way forward.

The review will help the NHS locally decide on what services will best meet the needs of the people of east Suffolk.

Yours sincerely

Alan Johnson

Secretary of State for Health

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