Anger over costly beds left empty

PUBLISHED: 09:49 08 April 2009 | UPDATED: 13:37 03 July 2010

Tens of thousands of pounds of NHS cash have been wasted by Norfolk health chiefs on private hospital beds which are sitting empty.

There was anger last night at the waste of cash and continued secrecy over the exact cost of the beds.

Tens of thousands of pounds of NHS cash have been wasted by Norfolk health chiefs on private hospital beds which are sitting empty.

There was anger last night at the waste of cash and continued secrecy over the exact cost of the beds.

As reported last month, 10 beds were booked at the Spire Hospital in Norwich - the former Bupa hospital - in a bid to relieve pressure on beds at the busy Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Though NHS Norfolk bosses are still refusing to say how much the beds have cost, the price is believed to be considerably higher than the NHS equivalent, which is generally £180-£270 per day.

With the contract at Spire starting in mid-March and unable to be terminated until early May, the five unused beds are estimated to have cost more than £20,000 so far and are likely to have cost more than £50,000 - potentially considerably more - by the time the contract finishes.

The beds are for acute orthopaedic rehabilitation, with patients being moved there two to three days after a hip or knee replacement at the N&N and staying in Spire for about five days. It was the first such block booking of private beds which NHS Norfolk, the health trust for central and west Norfolk, has made.

But now it has been revealed only half the beds have been used, even though the NHS has been paying for them.

Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP and Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: “It clearly isn't a good use of money to pay for five beds in a private hospital sitting there unused. It is outrageous not to disclose the cost - there can be no justification for that at all when this is public money. It increases my concern to hear that only half these beds are being used.

“It doesn't leave you with much faith [NHS Norfolk's] commissioning competency.”

NHS Norfolk is now giving notice that it will not need the five beds but will still have to pay for them for the next month.

Steve Davies, NHS Norfolk's interim director of performance, said: “It is a bit disappointing that the N&N hasn't taken up those beds. Spire told me that the N&N have only used half the beds. I have been forced to give notice on five beds.”

He said that the cost could not be disclosed because it was commercially sensitive, but confirmed they cost more than equivalent NHS care. He said: “It was a financially sustainable short-term solution, but not a long-term solution.”

Finance director David Stonehouse added: “They were not cheap. They are not financially sustainable in the longer term.”

But the N&N said that it had not been able to use all the beds because Spire would not take the most ill patients which it cannot offer suitable care for. Hospital spokesman Andrew Stronach said: “The central issue is that Spire have very strict criteria for what type of patients they'll accept to those beds. If the patients don't meet that criteria then they can't be placed there.”

Tim Townshend, a retired barrister from Norwich and public governor of the N&N, said: “It is deplorable. It underlines the importance for public accountability in public bodies in all respects - not just in the amounts of money paid, but about how much these things are used.

“We are in an age in which politicians are getting it in the neck, but organisations where there is public sector provision retreat behind commercial confidentiality and avoid the degree of public scrutiny and accountability and the openness we are entitled to expect. It is not acceptable.”

At the N&N's council of governors meeting last month, chief executive Anna Dugdale said that the N&N had 63 beds fewer than the number needed to meet demand over last winter, and would be 180 short next winter without extra action being taken. She said the 10 Spire beds were helping to meet the huge demand on the N&N.

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