An East Midlands council has completely axed GP referral services for weight management and exercise as a result of Government cuts to public health spending.
Lincolnshire County Council said it was forced to terminate contracts with Weight Watchers and a district council-run exercise referral scheme in order to make savings.
The council is also cutting sexual health and smoking cessation services – adding to a growing list of local authorities that are scaling back these clinics under swingeing public health cuts.
Local GP leaders have formally objected to the cuts – which they said flew in the face of the Government’s prevention agenda – and warned that GPs will end up picking up the work.
It follows cuts of £200m to public health budgets, which the Treasury said would not affect frontline services.
An email sent to Lincolnshire GPs explained that ‘the Weight Watchers contract will not be renewed past the 31 May 2016’, and that GPs ‘can continue to refer up to and including 20 May 2016’.
Another informed GPs that the council ‘have assessed the future viability of the Exercise Referral Scheme which costs them around £500,000 annually… and, at a meeting of LCC’s full council on February 22, it was decided that this funding should be removed from their budget’.
The email added: ‘We would ask that you now cease to refer clients on the Exercise referral scheme. Anyone referred after 10 March 2016 will not be accepted onto the programme.’
Cllr Mrs Patricia Bradwell, executive member for public health at Lincolnshire County Council, said in a statement: ‘The council has had to find savings of £42m in 2016/17. This includes further reductions to our public health grant, on top of a £2m mid-year cut to our public health in 2015/16.
‘Inevitably we have to stop funding some services altogether, including some funding we provide to organisations that help people to improve their own health.’
Lincolnshire LMC has expressed ‘concern and incredulity at the proposed cuts’ in a letter to the council.
The letter warned that ‘the burden of this work is likely to fall on general practices’ and urged the council to provide information for signposting patients to any alternative voluntary or charitable services.
Dr Kieran Sharrock, medical director at Lincolnshire LMC, told Pulse the cuts to weight and exercise services ‘will impact significantly – it has had very positive effects on helping people lose weight and improving their health’.
He said: ‘For example, we’ve had a number of patients who were quite badly controlled diabetics who are much better controlled as a result of being able to go along to “Healers”, the exercise referral scheme.’
Dr Sharrock added: ‘Simon Stevens and Jeremy Hunt have talked about prevention being the key to the future and saving the NHS. At a time when NHS funding is being cut as a proportion of GDP, to also cut public health funding at the same time seems ridiculous.’