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When is a missed target not a missed target?

Has the Department of Health pushed back its GP-led health centre deadline?

By Steve Nowottny

Has the Department of Health pushed back its GP-led health centre deadline?

SHAs certainly seem to think so. Ever since the department announced it wanted contracts on the GP-led health centres signed by 31 December 2008, NHS bosses have been eyeing the deadline nervously.

See this March 2008 report from NHS North West, for instance, which warns: ‘It requires a significant programme management input together with rigorous performance management and facilitation to ensure that the December deadline is met.'

Or a more recent report to the board of NHS West Midlands, from January this year, which states: ‘As outlined in the last progress report, there was a risk that a few PCTs would not meet the Contract Award and Sign-Off target date of 31 December 2008... The DH have subsequently modified the contract signature milestone date to the 31 March 2009.'

It's not as though we didn't know there would be delays. Pulse revealed as long ago as last August that PCTs would miss the deadline – and the Department told us, no matter, the ‘vast majority' of PCTs would have signed contracts by December.

How they've changed the tune. When we went back to the Department to ask them why they'd moved the deadline, they came back with an ingenious answer – they hadn't.

‘The deadline for contract signature for GP-led health centres has always been March 31,' they told us. ‘The Department recommended a December target date as a milestone in order to help SHAs to performance manage PCTs, to allow plenty of time for any slippage or other issues that may arise.'

Ingenious – if slightly contradicted by the SHA reports. But it doesn't change the fact that managers have clearly struggled to meet the original target.

NHS West Midlands reported that 36 of its 39 schemes (GP-led health centres and new APMS practices for underdoctored areas) had missed the target. In the East of England, it was 10 out of 16, in the South West 9 out of 16, and in the East Midlands, just 2 of the 17 contracts were signed in time.

Deadline, milestone, ‘target date', call it what you will – in the vast majority of cases, PCTs have spectacularly missed it.

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