Rosy future for hospital under way

TODAY is the first day of the rest of Hinchingbrooke Hospital s life. Managers are now, at last, able to implement the changes that saved the cash-strapped hospital from serious downgrading. The rescue package, which starts today (Wednesday) will reduce t

TODAY is the first day of the rest of Hinchingbrooke Hospital's life. Managers are now, at last, able to implement the changes that saved the cash-strapped hospital from serious downgrading.

The rescue package, which starts today (Wednesday) will reduce the hospital workload by 20 per cent, while retaining virtually all services - including A&E, surgery and cancer treatment.

Only rare treatment to correct curvature of the spine will no longer be available at Hinchingbrooke.

It marks the culmination of a "Hands off Hinchingbrooke" campaign by The Hunts Post and MPs Jonathan Djanogly and Shailesh Vara - and a petition signed by half the district's adults - to prevent Hinchingbrooke's downgrading to cottage hospital status.

The trail-blazing rescue package could now be used by other small general hospitals that get into financial difficulty.

The decision came on the same day that the key was handed over for the new children's unit at the hospital. It will be called Holly Ward like the ward it will replace.

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Cambridgeshire Primary Care Trust, which funds virtually all the hospital's treatment, started a three-month consultation on the package in February. Today, armed with overwhelming public support, it approved the plans that will save £14.5million a year.

Hinchingbrooke chief executive Mark Millar told The Hunts Post: "We are grateful for people's support. The really good thing has been the enthusiasm of people who have been working together through the changes. It feels really positive."

Full details will emerge at the Hinchingbrooke board meeting in early September.

It was a financial review by Mr Millar a year ago for the East of England Strategic Health Authority that identified that the hospital was not an economic write off, even though it faced the prospect of a deficit for 2006/07 of more than £30million.

But changes of heart by the Department of Health over funding rules that discriminated against Hinchingbrooke meant it actually ended the year with a shortfall of just £13million.

The package of changes, which include smarter working and the abolition of the Hinchingbrooke board in April 2009, should lead to break-even next year and operating surplus thereafter as the savings kick in fully.

Historic debt of around £10million will be dealt with separately, possibly by selling land.

The 20 per cent reduction in workload will involve a range of treatments being transferred to health centres and doctors' surgeries, mostly in market towns, and in patients' homes. In practice, many services will still be provided on the hospital campus, but by the PCT directly.

Last September, the hospital's future looked dire, with the financial crisis leading to serious downgrading. But it was a tribute to hospital staff, GPs, the SHA and the PCT that the rescue plan, masterminded by interim chief executive Jane Herbert, was allowed to shine the light of a new dawn on the south-west Huntingdon site.

Ms Herbert told The Hunts Post yesterday: "Last September and early October the prospects looked very bleak. We hadn't yet done the work to show we could actually find a solution. It looked possible that large parts might be lost, including A&E and maternity. It wasn't until we started doing the detailed work that a potential way through that emerged."

Ms Herbert said the package could form the basis of saving other small general hospitals up and down the country.

The consultation threw up some concerns about the transfer of work to the community and about accessibility from outlying villages, but the PCT believes transitional funding and collaboration with transport providers can fix those issues.

The only potential fly-in-the-ointment could be the county council's health scrutiny committee, which could delay implementation by demanding that the proposal go to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt (or whoever Gordon Brown may appoint today to succeed her).

But the committee's chairman, Councillor Lister Wilson, thinks that is unlikely. "Personally, I think the PCT has done a first class job on consultation and has written a first class report," he told The Hunts Post. "It has listened to everything we and the public have said."

PCT chief executive Chris Banks said the trust had paid close attention to responses to the consultation, particularly around local access to services. "Everyone has really got behind this to come up with a plan that will work," he added. "Now we can get on and make it work.

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