NHS' annus horribilis

FEW subjects have provoked more reaction this year than the state of Suffolk's NHS.As cuts took hold and the realities of the desperate financial situation began to bite, our postbag was brimming over with letters from concerned readers.

FEW subjects have provoked more reaction this year than the state of Suffolk's NHS.

As cuts took hold and the realities of the desperate financial situation began to bite, our postbag was brimming over with letters from concerned readers. Health reporter SARAH GILLETT looks back at a year of pain.

THIS time last year, the outlook was bleak.

Huge debts loomed large in the background of the county's health trust and, despite the protestations of managers to the contrary, showed no sign of going away.

Everyone knew things were going to be tough, but this was the year that the debts became more than just vast figures on a page and became a reality that there was no escaping from. Immediate action was needed to try to turn things round and it was barely a month in to the year when the axe fell on the first swathe of services at the end of January.

Despite the efforts of hundreds of protesters, bosses at the then Suffolk East Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) gave their seal of approval to the closure of the Bartlet Hospital in Felixstowe, Bridge House in Ipswich, Old Fox House in Stowmarket, three mental health day hospitals in Saxmundham, Kesgrave, and Stowmarket and the Hayward Day Hospital on the Ipswich Hospital site.

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Defiant protesters fought on, with Suffolk's health scrutiny committee even referring the closure of the Bartlet for the attention of health secretary Patricia Hewitt - to no avail.

The first of the mental health services began to close at the end of April, with other services following suit in the wake of Ms Hewitt's final stamp of approval.

Campaigners for Felixstowe's Bartlet Hospital were forced to give up their battle in September and the hospital was put up for sale at the start of November.

Nowhere were the difficulties of the financial situation more fully realised than at Ipswich Hospital where the debts just kept piling up.

Recent figures place the trust's total debt at around £24m and, in September, hospital bosses were forced to announce a raft of controversial money-saving measures that provoked outrage from health staff and the community.

Among the most painful was a decision to axe more than 350 jobs as well as close 70 beds and up to four operating theatres.

Included in the under-threat jobs were around 30 specialist nurses, which The Evening Star fought to save through its Save Our Angels campaign.

We were overwhelmed by the response, receiving more than 1,000 signatures within a fortnight of its launch, and there was a ray of hope for many when the hospital announced it had been able to save the majority of the nurses by securing alternative funding.

Despite many other places in the country having their own health problems, Ipswich's NHS fell under the national spotlight on several occasions during the year after the Star uncovered some ground-breaking exclusives.

In October, it emerged that the hospital was considering opening its doors to cats and dogs for radiotherapy treatment at weekends.

Our 'Animal Hospital' scoop went on to be covered extensively by national media and even made headlines on websites as far afield as Australia and America.

In July, another Star exclusive made national news when we revealed that Ipswich Hospital had lost out on millions of pounds for treating patients too quickly.

It emerged that, despite national maximum waiting time targets being in place, the local PCTs had also enforced their own minimum waiting time and would not pay for any operations carried out within that time.

If coping with the huge financial pressures was not enough for trusts to contend with there was also the added pressure of a huge restructuring of the system, ordered by the Department of Health.

In October the county's five primary care trusts became two and the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority was merged with its counterpart authorities in Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire - as was the region's ambulance trust.

The move was part of a government-led initiative known as Commissioning a Patient Led NHS, designed to reduce unnecessary levels of management within the system.

All the savings made from reducing the number of directors were ploughed back in to cancer care and treatment for terminally ill patients.

Despite the savings, the restructuring also created controversy, with many claiming it was simply a return to the days of the Suffolk Health Authority - and proof that the primary care trusts had failed in their duties.

Suffolk's new PCT, led by the former chief executive of the Suffolk East PCTs, Carole Taylor-Brown, has also come in for criticism after announcing plans to move to a new riverside headquarters in Bramford at a time when hospitals have had to be closed due to massive debts.

The year ended on a brighter note as The Evening Star Lifesaver appeal launched to buy state-of-the-art equipment for Ipswich Hospital's A&E department.

Bob Cousins, Amicus representative at Ipswich Hospital

Q: How was your year?

A: “2006 has been by far the worst year the health service in Suffolk has faced.

“The rapidly increasing size of our debt has obviously been the biggest single blow to the hospital. The long-term recruitment freeze is putting staff under enormous pressure, while the reviews of staffing levels across the whole site is time consuming and demoralising.

“There are not many high points but completing the Agenda for Change grading review was a major achievement considering the pressure the trust was under. It has put many staff on a fair salary scale that reflects the work they do.

“2007 looks like being even worse than this year. If the government and Department Of Health do nothing to ease the pressure on trusts the future of the NHS in its current form looks very uncertain.

“In our desperate search for short term savings we are likely to implement changes that will be very damaging in the long term.”

Carole Taylor-Brown, chief executive of Suffolk PCT

Q: How was your year?

A: “There has been a vast change in the last year. The creation of a new primary care trust for Suffolk on October 1 was part of a countrywide restructuring of the NHS to establish stronger commissioning organisations and at the same time reduce management costs.

“There was a massive turnaround in the financial situation in 2005/06. Suffolk PCT is not overspending and we are confident the recovery plans will deliver the savings.

“The challenge for us is to do this within the agreed timescales.

“The application for a judicial review into the decisions made by Suffolk West PCT and the referral by the Health Scrutiny Committee to the Secretary of State has put service improvements on hold in the west of the county. Meanwhile in east Suffolk, things are moving more quickly with teams being set up to care for people at home and new community hospital developments in Aldeburgh, Eye, Felixstowe and Ipswich.

“We have a range of new developments in progress, such as the creation of falls clinics across Suffolk, a £1.4 million project to turn Felixstowe General into a modern community hospital and a one-stop health centre in Woodbridge.

“As for the future, we are firmly set on Suffolk becoming one of the best performing areas in the country over the next few years.”

Andrew Reed, chief executive of Ipswich Hospital

Q: How was your year?

A: “2006 has been challenging, and painful, but also positive as we are getting to grips with many long-standing issues. It has certainly been one of the toughest years for the Trust but also our turning point year.

“There is always much to celebrate in a hospital because of the fantastic work of clinicians and staff, but highlights of this year include the start of building work on our Garrett Anderson Centre, the generosity of our community supporting the Let Them Play Evening Star Christmas appeal, celebrating the achievements of staff - such as Sonya Stephenson winning a major award for her work in rheumatology, Keren Brooke winning Play Specialist of the Year UK 2006, and Margaret Mukerji winning Radiotherapist of the Year East of England, as well as meeting the national standards in full for people suspected of having cancer being seen within two weeks.

The lowest point was April 2006 when we found out that our financial position was even more challenging as our deficit increased way beyond expectation.

“As for 2007, I hope it will hold success for us in turning around our finances, getting back on track financially and ending uncertainty for staff.”

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