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Tug-of-war over NHS millions

PUBLISHED: 13:48 29 November 2001 | UPDATED: 10:56 03 March 2010

A WRANGLE is brewing over a multi-million pound pot of cash which Suffolk Health has not spent on the people of Suffolk - and may now have to hand back to the Department of Health.

A WRANGLE is brewing over a multi-million pound pot of cash which Suffolk Health has not spent on the people of Suffolk - and may now have to hand back to the Department of Health.

The Evening Star can reveal that £4.3 million has been accumulated in a reserve fund by the health authority over several years, instead of being spent on services for patients across the county.

But now, as Ipswich Hospital, the East Anglian Ambulance Trust and others are desperately appealing for more cash, the money could be lost to Suffolk altogether.

The Department of Health - in the form of the Eastern regional NHS office - is now asking for it back, to help fund other health authorities in the region which need cash.

The crisis ironically comes just days after Chancellor Gordon Brown announced a £1 billion national boost to the NHS in his pre-budget statement – and he personally wrote to the Star to praise our push for a better health service.

But the latest revelation over the reserve fund looks as if the Government is giving money with one hand and taking it back with the other.

The £4.3m was originally given to the old regional health authority, which was taken over by Suffolk Health years ago, to pay for the closure of long-stay institutions and fund the services which replaced them.

But the only one in Suffolk - St Clements Hospital - is still operating in Ipswich.

Suffolk Health spent some on improving accommodation and new ways of working at St Clements, but also added to the pot every year.

It had planned to spend the cash on imminent one-off costs, like changes to Sudbury Hospital and moving accommodation for mental health patients at West Suffolk Hospital.

Suffolk Health board members yesterday expressed concern that if they handed over the cash, it might leave the county's Primary Care Trusts – new organisations which will take over some duties from the health authority when it folds next year - starting out with a debt.

Non executive member Colin Muge said: "The people of Suffolk have not had things, because we have not spent the money which we could have done. It would also be desperately wrong to risk our PCTs' future funds - we can't see a debt passed onto PCTs."

Deputy chief executive Mark Millar reminded members that the money must be available to loan to other health authorities, but added: "It is a question of when it would be paid back.

"The answer will be that they can't afford to do that, and whose problem is it then?"

The board agreed to tell the regional office that it "wishes to retain the use of the brokered money" and had concerns about the financial position of local health services in the future.

Meanwhile, consultant dermatologist Dr Tim Cutler runs one of the hospital departments which desperately needed funds.

He struggled for 15 years in what he called "less than ideal circumstances", as he campaigned for more resources.

He said: "If this money has been stored up when it could have been spent on improving healthcare, I would be very disappointed.

"We have been led to believe year on year that the health authority is overdrawn and some projects have been impossible to fund."

He now has new facilities and doesn't have to work singlehandedly any more, but he said: "Perhaps if we had known about this money, the situation could have been rectified sooner."

He urged sensible discussion and said: "If the money was intended for Suffolk, it should still be put to good use in Suffolk - even belatedly - and not swallowed up into central coffers. Common sense should prevail.

"The money is still there at the moment and it could still be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

At the East Anglian Ambulance Trust finance director Anna Bennett, said building up the "strategic change reserve", was "a sensible idea".

She added: "It is non-recurrent funding so therefore could not be used to pay for the recurrent annual costs of, for example, a 24-hour ambulance."

The £1billion promise to the NHS from Mr Brown, was welcomed by Suffolk Health chairwoman Joanna Spicer, but she warned that more than money is needed.

She said: " We need more doctors and more nurses, and they take time to train and come through.

"The numbers coming into professions have dropped over the years. Morale is quite low and we have to restore that, to make them attractive professions."

Mr Brown told the Star: "There is nothing more important to Star readers than the health service, as you made clear during this month's by-election campaign.

"It left none of us in doubt that you wanted more investment in the NHS - a message your new MP Chris Mole is making sure we don't miss - just as you want effort stepped up to spread prosperity and opportunity to every community here."

He said the extra £1bn for the NHS next year, on top of the unprecedented additional investment already going in, means NHS funding will increase by seven per cent in real terms.

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