Health Secretary to push cut in rural funding despite warnings

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HEALTH Secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned he is planning to push ahead with controversial cuts to funding for countryside GPs despite a leaked report stressing the need to ensure cash is made available to protect rural NHS services.

The Government has faced an outcry over the hugely contentious plans to phase out compensation payments for surgeries with low footfall between next year and 2021, with critics claiming the move will mean practices in rural areas are forced to close.

While Mr Hunt acknowledges the concerns about the “potential impact” of phasing out the so-called Minimum Practice Income Guarantee (MPIG), he remains adamant the overhaul will become a reality.

But his desire to push ahead with the changes comes in stark contrast to a confidential NHS-funded report obtained by the Yorkshire Post which provides a clear perspective on long-held views that it is vital to retain funding to protect rural healthcare.

Consultants from Deloitte compiled the report over an 11-week period before it was published in March 2006, and stressed small rural practices incur significant additional costs to their counterparts in urban areas.

The study also warned that the large additional travel costs incurred by patients would outweigh the savings if GP practices were merged.

Richmondshire District Council’s leader John Blackie has been among the most vociferous critics of the proposed scrapping of MPIG payments, and warned patients living in some of the remotest parts of the Yorkshire Dales would face a round trip of up to 50 miles to see a doctor if a GP surgery in Hawes was forced to close.

Coun Blackie, who also represents the Upper Dales division on North Yorkshire County Council, said: “If GP practices were to close in the deeply rural areas of North Yorkshire, it would strike a hammer blow at the very heart of their communities, and call into question their long-term future.

“Is it not surely a right to have a GP practice operating in the midst of your community when the next nearest alternative is 10 miles or more away?”

He added: “The NHS-funded report by Deloitte concludes there is an undisputed need to provide a special compensatory payment to the small GP practices serving rural and deeply rural communities, as both they, and their patients, suffer the additional costs of the travelling distances and the lack of critical mass that are the characteristic hallmarks of a sparsely populated area.”

Coun Blackie claimed only 100 deeply rural GP practices out of more than 10,000 surgeries in England would qualify for compensation payments and it would cost as little as £4m to finance – a figure which could be paid for by the predicted £110m savings from axing of the MPIG scheme.

The concerns over the demise of the MPIG payments will be taken to the highest echelons of North Yorkshire’s political sphere on Friday when council leaders and chief executives converge for the latest meeting of the Local Government North Yorkshire and York group.

Members of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority voted earlier this month to back the protest against the controversial reforms. But in a letter to William Hague, the MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire, which has been seen by the Yorkshire Post, Mr Hunt claimed NHS England is committed to a “fair and equitable approach” with “greater clarity as soon as possible” for GP practices.

The Department of Health was adamant the decision to phase out the MPIG payments is aimed at making a fairer funding system, with money for GPs shared depending on the numbers of patients they serve and the health needs of those patients.

A spokesman said the department recognised concerns about rural provision of medical services. He also confirmed a “rural health tookit” aimed at providing healthcare commissioners, such as the Clinical Commissioning Groups which were launched at the start of April, with advice about providing fair funding for the NHS will be published on November 30.

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