Health debts should not have got so bad

AS EAST Suffolk's health system begins to buckle under crippling debts, the man in charge of the purse strings has today spoken out and said it should never have got this bad.

AS EAST Suffolk's health system begins to buckle under crippling debts, the man in charge of the purse strings has today spoken out and said it should never have got this bad.

Julian Herbert took up the post of director of finance for the east Suffolk Primary Care Trusts four months ago, when the system was already millions of pounds in debt.

Now he is facing the mammoth task of trying to reduce this year's spending by £18m and clear existing debts of £21m- a job which has just got twice as hard after the Strategic Health Authority slashed the time available to him.

Mr Herbert said: "There has been an underlying problem for some time.

"Certainly, over the last two years it has been there's been over-spending coming through.

"There's been a recognition for some time that there's been too much money being spent and what has been too slow in happening is trying to manage some of that demand.

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"It certainly isn't something that has just crept up."

And he added that the present debts should not have come as a shock and spending should have been controlled better.

Finding the money has meant a series of controversial proposals to close community beds, leading many to ask just how the situation reached this point.

Today protestors were gathering at a meeting of Suffolk Coastal Primary Care Trust over plans to close the Felixstowe General in a bid to save money.

Mr Herbert said: "When the three PCTs came together financial control was not as great as perhaps it could have been."

He identifies one of the biggest problems as keeping track of the amount being spent on treating patients in hospitals outside the area when they need specialist treatment, for example at Addenbrookes for head injuries.

In an interview with the Evening Star last week PCT chief executive Carole Taylor-Brown admitted "the number of people needing this kind of service was more than we'd forecast."

Mr Herbert said: "The invoices and bills you get at the end of the year are based on how people have been using the services during the year and you should not get that level of shock or surprise coming through.

"Systems have been put in place now to make sure that won't happen again. "We should be able to control the spending better than we have done and predict it better than we have.

"There are things we can do. We need to have a better view of where the needs are. We can't just receive invoices from other hospitals without keeping a check on it.

"We need to be working with them to be clear what they expect us to be spending. Each month we will be contacting them and understanding the number of patients to expect invoices for. This will avoid any surprises in that area."

Mr Herbert identified a number of other reasons for the massive overspending, including increased demand and the fact that Suffolk's NHS is "heavily institutionalised" and too reliant on beds rather than community care.

He added: "One of the difficulties is that PCTs are relatively new organisations and therefore there isn't the experience to build on. People have been continually learning since they were created three years ago."

Saving such vast amounts of money in just 12 months has been labelled an impossible task by many but Mr Herbert is confident in-roads can be made.

He said: "It can be done. The risk is how long it will take. We have got to get going as quickly as possible because every hour we don't do it our debt is building.

"It will be difficult but we can't afford to keep spending more than we've been given."

n. How concerned are you by Suffolk's debts? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email

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