A major healthcare review of South West London, which has already cost taxpayers £2million, has been thrown into confusion by the collapse of a hospital merger which, critics say, should have been foreseen.
The ‘Better Services, Better Value’ review, begun in May 2011, was well advanced, recommending in May this year that A&E and maternity units at St Helier Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, should close and these services be centralised to two other hospitals in the region. Inevitably, this sparked local opposition and public consultation was due to start in October.
The review’s proposals and business plan were built on the assumption that St Helier would no longer be part of a failing NHS Trust with Epsom Hospital. Back in November 2011, it was announced that Epsom would be acquired by Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals, another trust in the region. On October 25th, however, the board of NHS London dropped a bombshell: the Epsom-Ashford and St Peter’s merger should be stopped because the proposal was not ‘financially viable’.
Local MPs are furious at the collapse of the merger process and consequent de-railing of the review. Reacting to the news Carshalton and Wallington MP Tom Brake said: ‘I am astonished that after all the time they had to work out the figures, at this late stage they have come to the conclusion they don’t add up.’ MP for Mitcham and Morden Siobhain McDonagh commented, ‘It’s frightening that so much money could be invested in something that is so superficial and flimsy.’
The merger proposal failed because Epsom Hospital has a deficit of £13.8m—a fact which should have surprised no-one, according to John Boyd, deputy medical director of Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust from 1997 to 2005. In a letter to the Sutton Guardian published on November 29th, Mr Boyd points out that ‘the original merger between St Helier and Epsom in 1997 took place because Epsom was bankrupt and a financially failed trust. The understanding was that appropriate rationalisation of services between the hospitals would be of mutual benefit. Unfortunately… this rationalisation never took place.’
Public consultation on the closure of services at St Helier has been postponed indefinitely, leaving patients and staff and local residents to face further uncertainty. St Helier has a deficit of £5.6 million and the failing Epsom and St Helier trust is due to end its partnership on April 1st 2013. In November, Matthew Hopkins, chief executive of the trust, did not deny the possibility of government administrators coming in to run it. If so, it will be the second London NHS trust to suffer that fate—the South London Healthcare Trust was taken over by ministers in June.
Meanwhile, Mitcham and Morden councillor Suzanne Evans, shadow cabinet member for health, says of the ‘Better Services, Better Value’ (BSVB) review, ‘A lot of time, effort and money has been wasted and I’m sure BSBV are frustrated. The clinicians who took part did so with the best intentions and I’m sure they are equally frustrated that their efforts have come to nothing.’