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GPs face complete halt on all non-urgent referrals under CCG plans to cut costs

A north-west CCG is proposing to completely suspend all non-urgent GP referrals to local hospitals for up to fourth months in a drastic bid to balance its books.

The move by NHS St Helens CCG could see GPs blocked from referring any patients for non-urgent treatment over a winter period for a ‘maximum’ of four months, so that hospitals can concentrate on urgent referrals such as for suspected cancer and sick children.

It did not detail how it would block referrals, but said that any decision to not refer will be made in agreement by the patient and the GP.

The CCG – recently rated ‘inadequate’ by NHS England – admits the move ‘will not be popular’, but adds it is facing a £12.5m funding gap over the next year after a £3m overspend. 

It has put together a two-year recovery plan to achieve the £12.5m savings this year and a further £17.5m next year – as well as the necessary 1% yearly budget surplus to meet the statutory duty to achieve financial balance.

As part of this, it has launched a consultation on a raft of measures – including the plan to pause referrals into the local hospitals – to ‘suspend, reduce or withdraw certain services’ in order to help close the funding gap.

In a press statement, the CCG said: ‘One proposal is to pause (temporarily suspend) non-urgent referrals to hospital for a maximum four month period. Hospital referrals are one of our biggest area of financial pressure and currently activity in the hospital exceeds the budget we receive.’

It added that ‘any decision not to refer will be made in agreement by the patient and GP’.

The four-month pause of all non-urgent treatment over the winter months would ‘support hospitals during the busy winter period’ and enable them to ‘concentrate on treating patients who require urgent referrals, suspected cancer and referrals for sick children’, commissioners said.

And the move will also ‘reduce the risk of your operation being cancelled during the busy winter months when there are less non-urgent beds available’.

CCG lay chair Mr Geoffrey Appleton commented: ‘Although we are trying to make as many efficiency savings as we can (buying the same or similar services for less and reducing waste), our funding gap is so large we know these measures alone will not bring a resolution and we are faced with the prospect of proposing to suspend, reduce or withdraw certain services.

‘We recognise these proposals will not be popular but we will be involving those, who want to have their say, in the discussions and we welcome your thoughts about how we should be making cost savings.’

The public is being invited to comment on the proposals through an online survey and the consultation lasts until 5 October.