By Ian Quinn
The Government is to allow practices offering extended hours to take over the evening and weekend care of patients from neighbouring GPs who refuse to provide the service.
In a major new drive to give all patients the right to evening and weekend appointments, the Department of Health has ordered PCTs to pay other practices or commission out-of-hours providers to plug gaps in GP take up.
The controversial move, which will mean patients effectively access care from two different practices, was revealed in a letter sent to all PCTs and SHA chiefs by DH head of primary care Gary Belfield, after details were announced of the extension of the extended hours DES for 2010/11.
Under the terms of the deal agreed with the GPC, GP practices are being asked to indicate early in the next financial year if they plan to take up the DES.
The document states: ‘A key priority is to seek to provide access to evening/weekend appointments for patients whose practices are not providing extended opening, for instance by asking other practices to provide this services, or by commissioning out-of-hours providers to offer bookable appointment slots for routine care.'
Health minister Mike O'Brien told MPs this week that the Government planned a system by which ‘neighbouring doctors can apply to be paid for seeing patients of practices that do not offer extended hours.'
The move comes with extended hours policy set to form a key health battleground between Labour and the Conservatives in the run up to the general election, with the Tories having said they would scrap mandatory extended hours targets for GPs.
Around 77% of practices offer extended hours, according to the latest figures, but the Government wants to expand it, after agreeing with GP leaders the DES which will see £161m ploughed in by PCTs for commissioning extended hours in 2010/11.
The Government has told PCTs all that funding must be used to improve to obtain more extended hours appointments and the document says that it would also be open to trusts to offer additional funding to practices already offering extended hours to get them to ramp up the number of appointments further.
Mr O'Brien claimed that the Government's policy was driving uptake by making GP practices see that if they failed to take part they would lose out financially to their colleagues, claiming further pressure was being put on practices by the rollout of Darzi centres.
‘The new GP-led health centres are providing a real incentive for practices that up to now have not offered extended hours,' he told the Commons.
‘They can see that GP-led health centres are there, and that some patients will start to use them unless GPs start to offer the extended hours. GPs can also see that, with £161 million available in the coffers of PCTs, additional funding is available for GP practices that offer extended hours.'GPs are to be paid to offer extended hours to patients registered with neighbouring practices GPs are to be paid to offer extended hours to patients registered with neighbouring practices