Surgery cancelled in cash crisis

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Patients are having operations cancelled because hospitals face a cash crisis this winter, in spite of the additional pounds 1.6bn won for the health service by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health.

General practitioners in the Lewisham area of south London are being told by their local hospital trust to halt all non-urgent referrals to the hospital until next April, when the extra money becomes available with the new financial year. General practitioners in east London similarly have been told by their hospital trust to delay all non-urgent cases until then.

Chris Smith, Labour's healthspokesman, said a similar picture was emerging in other parts of the country. "Wherever I go," he said, "I hear reports of hospitals in cash shortage. The pressure of emergency cases will intensify the difficulties facing hospitals, with the inevitable consequences of delayed operations and lengthening waiting lists."

Doctors in south London are being told in a letter from the Lewisham Hospital NHS Trust, which The Independent has obtained, that the hospital is being forced to cancel all non-urgent elective surgery because of the shortage of funds. The squeeze has been increased by a rise of 12 per cent in emergency admissions.

Many patients will be disappointed and upset, Val Martin, chief executive of the hospital, said in the letter to Jim Dowd, Labour MP for Lewisham West. "I very much regret the action that we are forced to take and I know our clinical teams will be as sensitive as they can to make sure all appropriate clinical cases are still brought in."

She added: "Until the 31st March 1997, we will reluctantly only be able to treat urgent cases and those who would otherwise exceed the 18- months waiting-time target."

Mr Dowd is protesting to Mr Dorrell over the delays but ministerial sources indicated there would be no further injection of cash this year to help tide the hospitals over to the next financial year.

Mr Dorrell, in effect, admitted there was a problem by allocating pounds 20m to a "challenge fund" for hospitals to make bids by the end of the month for the money to allow more elderly people to be treated at home, freeing up beds. Hospitals will have to make ends meet by a combination of accountancy tricks, demanding earlier payment of bills by fund-holding GPs, and they may delay paying their own bills, although that would be against government policy. Health authorities may also borrow money from each other, under a "brokerage" system.

Government figures show that 10 NHS trusts remained in real deficit in 1995-6, ranging from Mid Anglia Community at pounds 119,000, to United Leeds Teaching hospitals at pounds 6.9m.

Mr Dorrell has predicted there will be a net surplus for the trusts of pounds 60m, but that could hide big deficits for some trusts, which have a duty to break even at the end of the year.