Martha dies as hospitals close beds

MARTHA TAYLOR may or may not have been a victim of the financial crisis that has overtaken the National Health Service. Her family will probably never know.

She died a week ago after a road accident. But as her life ebbed away, doctors tried to unravel confusion surrounding contracts so that she could be transferred to another hospital for specialist emergency treatment.

When the situation was eventually resolved she was taken to a hospital 30 minutes away. Martha, aged 78, lasted only 15 minutes on arrival. Death was due to a ruptured aorta.

Her relatives, who waited in the casualty department as doctors negotiated, buried her last Thursday. This week Mrs Taylor's daughter, Dorothy Crew, and husband, David, will demand an explanation from Barnet district health authority.

On the day she died, the British Medical Association drew attention to the growing number of bed closures in hospitals across the country which had slowed or stopped operations. Patients scheduled for non-urgent operations, like hip replacements, hysterectomies and hernias, must wait until the next financial year starts in April 1993.

Doctors also pointed to the emergence of a two-tier system with GP fundholders able to refer patients to hospitals no longer accepting admissions under health authority block contracts.

While the BMA maintains the bed closures and cancellations are due to underfunding compounded by the NHS reforms, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, robustly defends the changes, which she says have brought increased efficiency.

Ultimately Mrs Taylor's death seems bound up in the whole controversy.

Like other hospitals, Barnet General, in north London, was in the midst of a cash crisis when Mrs Taylor was brought in at 2.30 last Saturday afternoon.

The hospital is part of the group that makes up the Wellhouse Trust, which opted out earlier this year and began operations last April with a deficit of pounds 1.7m, rather than the projected amount of pounds 220,000.

This should not have affected Mrs Taylor when she arrived with a broken leg and two broken ribs after an acident in her black Nissan Cherry.

The health district has valid contracts with the Middlesex, Hammersmith and Harefield hospitals to treat emergency cases if they need more expertise than Barnet can muster. The family was told at 5.30pm that she was going to be moved to Harefield, but there was a delay.

One of the doctors said: 'There was some hold-up as they checked to see whether we could pay the bill.

'It was a misunderstanding as to whether we still had a contract with Harefield or whether it had been fulfilled. She was in the department longer than we would have wanted.'

It was not until 8.30pm that Mrs Taylor finally left Barnet for Harefield where she died 45 minutes later.