Health Bosses Answer Critics Over the Scrapping of St Albans Urgent Care

FEELINGS were running high at a public meeting on Tuesday night to call health chiefs to account over the scrapping of plans for an urgent care centre in St Albans. As revealed by the Herts Advertiser website on Thursday, the West Herts Primary Care Trust

FEELINGS were running high at a public meeting on Tuesday night to call health chiefs to account over the scrapping of plans for an urgent care centre in St Albans.

As revealed by the Herts Advertiser website on Thursday, the West Herts Primary Care Trust (PCT) has withdrawn plans to provide the urgent care centre (UCC) in place of the current minor injuries unit at St Albans City Hospital, which replaced the city's accident and emergency (A&E) department in the 1990s.

Eight urgent care centres in Herts were originally proposed by the PCTs in Herts and the three which are up and running include Hemel Hempstead where St Albans' nearest A&E services were located until the department closed.

The fundamental difference between UCCs and minor injuries units is that they are staffed by doctors as well as nurses and have diagnostic equipment to deal with minor illnesses.

The UCC for St Albans had already reached the tender stage but, as reported in the Herts Advertiser in November, there had been a lack of "competitively priced" bidders wanting to deliver the scheme.

The tender process was halted and the PCT asked the NHS organisations currently providing minor injuries to go back to the drawing board and come up with a more affordable model to put out to tender.

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And in only February, St Albans MP Anne Main attended a briefing held by the West Herts PCT in which health bosses were still discussing plans to press ahead with improving facilities at St Albans City Hospital.

But on Thursday morning, MP Anne Main was given the "bombshell" news that the PCT board had decided to scrap UCCs at St Albans and Bishops Stortford because of lack of funding.

Mrs Main said: "This decision has been made overnight. A load of pen pushers have sat there and decided that St Albans is an unaffordable option and I think it's absolutely disgraceful."

The MP called and chaired the public meeting at which the four other parliamentary candidates were present on the panel on Tuesday night and where some protestors suggested marching through the streets to campaign for the service.

West Herts PCT director of primary care development Andrew Parker explained that the PCT hadn't been able to complete the tendering process. He said: "The proposals to come out of the market place didn't meet our needs and were significantly beyond the level of affordability we had assumed in the strategy but at that time we hadn't decided to pull that approach. What we were doing was trying to find other ways and strategies of delivering the services.

"These proposals were taken to the boards last week which is why we are here tonight. They considered the proposals but, again, it was beyond the level of funding we could afford at the current time in delivering the benefit that we had envisaged."

Simon Rouse, director of strategy, said that there has been a significant growth in people attending acute hospital sites, particularly A&E departments, which had affected the budget.

He explained that the UCC model was designed to draw people away from using A&E unnecessarily and that the PCT wasn't sure that a facility at St Albans would do that.

But Mrs Main argued that it was a "self-fulfilling prophecy" and that bringing enhanced services to St Albans would stop people travelling to acute sites.

Mr Parker said their experience at existing UCC sites was that dramatically more people than expected were using the facility as an extension of the GP service, which effectively meant paying for it twice.

He said: "We haven't seen clear evidence that expanding minor injuries unit would stop people going to A&E and not just re-provide for people who are already well provided for in St Albans."

The health bosses refused to give details of the tendering bids in the interest of "protecting commercial confidentiality", but they said it ran "several times into six figures" for the St Albans and Bishop Stortford sites combined.

That was despite Colin Johnston, the medical director for West Herts Acute Services Trust, which bid for the service, telling the meeting that he didn't mind the amount of money being disclosed.

Mr Johnston said that there was no doubt the facility would be of benefit as it would address patients that couldn't be treated by GPs but didn't require the needs of a fully-fledged A&E department.

The health bosses declined to answer a question about whether St Albans would ever get enhanced facilities.

The two Herts PCTs will now review the strategy for urgent care across the county and present the proposals to the new NHS board in the summer.

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