Merseyside NHS: Sharp rise in acute hospitals' debt

man walking in ward Image copyright PA
Image caption Health economists say increasing costs are partly due to rising care demands from an ageing population

The collective debt of non-specialist NHS hospitals in Merseyside rose sharply in the last financial year, BBC research has found.

In 2014-15, the trusts were a total of £1.75m in the red, but by April 2016 debts had increased to nearly £25m.

However, the surplus for the region's five specialist trusts during the same period rose from £28m to £61m.

This was due in part to a £49m grant towards the building of a new hospital by The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre.

The Department of Health said it was investing an extra £10bn per year in the NHS in England by 2020.

NHS hospital trusts in Merseyside

  • General acute trusts: Aintree University Hospital; Arrowe Park Hospital; The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals; Southport and Ormskirk Hospital; and St Helens Hospital
  • Specialist trusts: Alder Hey Children's Hospital; The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre; Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital; Liverpool Women's Hospital; and The Walton Centre

Experts say there are increased financial demands on NHS trusts.

This is partly due to the need for higher staffing levels in the wake of a 2013 inquiry which criticised patient care at Stafford Hospital.

'Balancing the books'

Professor Naomi Chambers of Alliance Manchester Business School said there was a "challenge around balancing the books and ensuring safe care".

She explained: "The solution is to have an honest conversation with the public about whether we want to increase the level of funding to the NHS to the average in Europe."

About 10% of the UK's Gross Domestic Product is spent on healthcare - compared to 11% and 17% in Germany and United States respectively.

Prof Chambers says there is evidence of "an appetite to increase levels of tax" provided the money raised goes on the NHS.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Healthcare spending as a proportion of GDP is now above the OECD average and the NHS has a strong plan to balance the books, which we're supporting by helping hospitals to become more efficient, improve productivity and reduce the use of expensive agency staff."

But Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders said: "Six years of underfunding the NHS and slashing social care budgets has pushed the health service to the brink of a full-scale crisis and the Tories remain in a state of complete denial."

Analysis: Richard Stead, BBC News

In the next few years, NHS Trusts will need to ask if we can afford - and is it safe - for local hospitals to do everything?

In many cases, the answer to that question will be No.

That will mean things like fewer, more specialised units for A&E, stroke, and orthopaedic patients.

The closure of local units may be unpopular - but the health service has made significant savings before.

Back in the 1950s, budgets were under similar pressure. That led to charges being introduced for spectacles, dental care and prescriptions.

What all this boils down to is the fundamental question of whether we - as a country - spend enough on health.

Should we raise taxes and cut spending elsewhere, or introduce charges for more services?

These are the dilemmas facing our politicians.

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