Prime Minister Tony Blair was today meeting the head of the Audit Commission for talks on the organisation's damning report on NHS provision of equipment to disabled people.
The report, released today, found that NHS disability equipment services were "unacceptably low", leaving millions of people enduring long waits for vital equipment, which is often outdated, uncomfortable and unusable when delivered.
Mr Blair agreed that the situation uncovered in the report was "unacceptable" and said that it illustrated the need - outlined in his high-profile health speech following last week's Budget - for reform to iron out variations in performance around the NHS.
Today's report, which examined equipment provided by the NHS or social services to four million people in England and Wales, warned that poor quality services were stripping disabled people of their dignity and independence.
Lack of proper equipment could end up costing the NHS millions of pounds in residential care costs for people who could live on their own if the service was improved, it warned.
Only a third of wheelchair users were asked what they wanted from their chairs, nearly one in five waited more than two months for delivery and one in five said they were not happy with the equipment.
The report found that millions of pounds were being wasted because some local social services lose up to 80% of the community disability equipment - such as bath mats, hoists and mattresses - they supply.
Disability equipment provision costs the NHS and local authorities £400 million a year, and includes hearing aids for two million people, community disability equipment for one million, 750,000 wheelchairs, 65,000 artificial limbs and 400,000 pieces of orthopaedic footwear.
But the report found that cost-cutting has resulted in fragmented services which force people to fulfil "illogical" eligibility criteria before they are given equipment.
Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission said: "While some areas are making good progress, the quality of equipment services is unacceptably poor in may parts of the country.
"A higher priority needs to be given to these services at all levels of the NHS."
Health minister John Hutton said £14 million was being made available from April 1 to provide more powered wheelchairs and improve voucher schemes to help disabled people who are not entitled to an NHS chair to buy equipment.
As well as Mr Foster, Mr Blair and Health Secretary Alan Milburn were today meeting Peter Homer, the head of the Commission for Health Improvement and Chief Social Services Inspector Denise Platt at 10 Downing Street for talks on NHS modernisation.
Among the subjects for discussion will be a possible 'star-rating' for hospitals, to alert patients to the variations in performance between different trusts.
Mr Blair will stress the need for "imaginative" ideas to ensure that patients' voices are heeded when providing services, arguing that a failure to listen simply results in complaints and costs money in the long run.
Mr Milburn said there were examples of the NHS working well with disabled people, but he admitted there were serious problems.
There was "no excuse" for hospitals not making improvements as health funding increased over coming years.
"We know that about a quarter of users of artificial limbs report that they don't use them as often as they would like for a whole variety of reasons, because they don't fit properly and because they aren't comfortable.
"Well that just can't be right," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"We can't have the situation either where people needing artificial limbs in some cases get their treatment within a matter of weeks and in other parts of the country have to wait for months and even possibly a year."Reuse content