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At-risk rural practices should be ‘looking to help themselves’ says health minister

The Government has rejected a last-ditch plea to form a special protection fund to ensure the survival of a few dozen English rural GP practices amid MPIG funding reforms, with a health minister suggesting practices should be ‘looking to help themselves’ to survive.

In a House of Commons debate concerning the minimum practice income guarantee (MPIG), health minister Dr Dan Poulter said he is ‘confident’ the formula the Government has devised ‘will support rural practices into the future’, rejecting calls for a similar central fund to protect rural practices as has been agreed in Wales and Scotland.

Instead Dr Poulter said surgeries must be ‘looking to help themselves’ – including making effiency savings on IT, back-office services and administration costs – and should consider turning themselves into dispensing practices to gain extra funding.

It would be a ‘matter for area teams’ to consider alternative funding options should the practices still be at risk of closure having exhausted all other options, he added.

NHS England has announced there are almost 100 practices who are set to lose £3 per patient as a result of the Government’s plan to withdraw MPIG, and a further 200 who will lose more than £2 per patient.

Pulse has reported that practices are considering cutting hours as a result of the decision, and the subsequent refusal of local area teams to provide financial support.

Liberal Democrat MP for West Morland and Lonsdale Tim Farron, whose constituency includes two remote rural communities in the Lake District, argued for a central fund to protect at-risk practices.

He said: ‘The process of removing the minimum practice income guarantee and redistributing the funds per capita is a staggeringly blunt instrument. It is the ultimate one-size-fits-all policy, which treats small rural practices the same as large urban ones.’

Mr Farron added: ‘The minister will know that strategic small surgery funds have been established in Scotland and Wales. They are ring-fenced at the centre to ensure that no surgery that needs to remain open is closed by accident. Rural communities in England suffer from poor funding in social care, secondary care and primary care.’

However Dr Poulter said: ‘That is a matter for area teams to look at. The first approach that area teams will take is to ask, “Where can we make efficiency savings that will mean there is more money for front-line patient care, such as IT, back-office services and administration costs?”.’

‘That has got to be the first thing: surgeries looking to help themselves. Later on down the line, if everything else has been exhausted, the area team will have to make a decision about whether other mechanisms are in place to provide additional support.’

He added: ‘Rural GPs may also be able to increase their income in other ways. For example, dispensing practices tend to be in rural areas, although not exclusively. That is potentially another way to provide additional income for a practice, as well as important support for the community, which can have closer-to-home access to prescribed medications and drugs.’

Dr Poulter said he was ‘confident’ that the funding formula ‘will support rural practices into the future.’