NHS chiefs under fire for ‘bias’ in heart unit storm

A rally in July in support of the Leeds General Infirmary Children's Heart Unit.
A rally in July in support of the Leeds General Infirmary Children's Heart Unit.
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HEALTH chiefs have been accused of diverting millions of pounds away from Yorkshire – paving the way for the controversial decision to axe children’s heart surgery in Leeds.

Concerns over the review which led to the proposal to close the Leeds General Infirmary heart surgery unit have been heightened by the uncovering of “shocking” spending figures.

According to a Leeds councillor, the data shows Yorkshire received disproportionately less funding from the National Specialised Commissioning Team (NSCT), which oversees funding and service provision for specialised treatment, including paediatric heart surgery.

His analysis shows that while Yorkshire and the Humber received £3.49 per person, the North East was given £13.36 per head over the past three years for specialist health care services.

The region is home to the Newcastle hospital which was chosen over Leeds to provide children’s heart surgery, meaning hundreds of children with life-threatening heart complaints in Yorkshire face a journey of up to three hours for treatment.

While the decision to close the children’s heart unit in Leeds, and units in Leicester and at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, was made by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, the NSCT ran the controversial review.

NHS bosses have said the analysis was “misleading”.

But Coun John Illingworth, chairman of the Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee which has condemned the decision by to move children’s heart surgery out of Leeds, said: “There is, to say the least, a very cordial ongoing relationship between NSCT and Newcastle, and NSCT should never have been asked to adjudicate between Newcastle and other sites.

“It is quite shocking that this relationship has only just come to light. Had it been properly disclosed during the public consultation on paediatric surgery in 2011, we would probably have seen a very different result.”

Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves, who uncovered the figures, said: “Families in Yorkshire will be concerned about these figures that suggest already Leeds receives less funding for specialist services than other parts of the UK. They cast even more doubt on the process that decided services should be removed from Leeds as it goes through a complex and costly judicial review.”

Officials decided to close the heart units after an NHS review concluded expertise was spread too thinly and should be concentrated in fewer hospitals.

Campaigners from Leeds are preparing legal action, however, and Yorkshire councillors will tomorrow agree to put in a complaint to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt about the plans. He has already ordered an independent review.

Coun Illingworth said the figures showed a “bizarre bias in favour of Newcastle” and added: “These figures shed some light on the problem – NSCT has been pouring money into Newcastle for many years, building up their heart transplant programme.”

Sharon Cheng, from the Leeds Save Our Surgery campaign, added: “This information showing the shocking disparity in funding
between regions provides yet more evidence that the decision to make Newcastle the heart surgery centre for the North was driven by reasons other than patient care.”

But NHS bosses stressed patients often travelled far and wide for specialist care.

Jo Sheehan, acting director of the NSCT, said: “The highly specialised services commissioned by the NSCT are for very small numbers of patients per year with very rare conditions.

“The services they provide are for patients from across the country, not just the immediate region. The regional cost-per-head analysis put forward by Coun Illingworth is misleading as it does not reflect which regions the patients are from.”