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Rationing of Surgery

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the rationing of surgery. The reason this is such an urgent issue is threefold: first, it is causing detriment to the health of the people of York; secondly, it is discriminatory; and, thirdly, the policy now reaches beyond York.

I am sure the Minister will set out how, under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, matters of clinical decision making were devolved to clinical commissioning groups to make decisions about local need, but this matter is so serious that I urge him to take action, as the Secretary of State said he would. I have exhausted all routes to getting the policy reviewed, so I am now appealing, through this debate, for a complete review. NHS England has previously been clear that even time-limited bans on particular groups of patients receiving treatment is inconsistent with the NHS constitution. In the light of that, I trust it will commit to withdrawing its support for rationing now that evidence of its detriment is coming through.

The Vale of York CCG determined to delay surgery to patients who smoked or had a body mass index of more than 30. The policy came into force on 1 February 2017. It was first proposed in September last year, but then withdrawn and reintroduced in November. The reason: to delay immediate spend on surgery. However, it is a totally false economy, and although it may delay CCG spend now, in order to meet imposed spending restrictions, the Royal College of Surgeons says that it may actually increase NHS costs if patients develop complications while waiting for surgery. The college has been clear that rationing policies, such as those implemented by the Vale of York CCG, are unacceptable.

The York CCG’s ability to make rationing decisions comes direct from the 2012 Act. The duty on the Secretary of State for Health to “provide or secure” the health service was removed from section 1 of the National Health Service Act 2006, thereby removing his responsibility, and replaced by a duty to make provision for the health service. The list of services that the NHS had to provide—a principle that had been embedded in the NHS since its inception—was also removed, meaning there no longer had to be a universal list of service provision, and that each CCG could determine its own. In other words, it became a complete postcode lottery: where someone lives determines the healthcare they can access.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged by the Secretary of State’s response to a question on rationing from the Health Committee on 18 October 2016. He said:

“When we hear evidence of rationing happening, we do something about it…we are absolutely determined to give people the clinical care that they need.”

In response to the Chair of the Committee, he said:

“When we hear of occasions when we think the wrong choices have been made, when an efficiency saving is proposed that we think would negatively impact on patient care, we step in, because, challenging though it is, our responsibility to the public is to make sure that we continue to make the NHS safer and higher quality and that it offers a higher standard of care”.

Minister, it is time to step in.

Early on, the Vale of York CCG hit the headlines and became unstuck when it rationed interventions such as in vitro fertilisation treatments—a decision that was reversed—so this CCG has form. As we saw from yesterday’s health and social care debate, the NHS financial model has failed. Not only does the funding formula fall short of real need, but the NHS now has the wrong financial drivers in place, resulting in a demand- led approach to health provision and uncontrollable spend.

I could talk more on that, but the Vale of York CCG introduced a delay on surgery as a direct result of its failure to contain its spend within budget; it now has special measures bearing down on it. The CCG receives around £1,150 per patient, when demand seriously exceeds that. CCGs just down the road are receiving 50%-plus more. York has an ageing population demographic and areas of serious deprivation. I urge the Minister to look again at NHS funding, because it simply is not working and our CCG is being penalised for that.

The Vale of York CCG took the decision to ration surgery for up to a year for those overweight and up to six months for smokers. Having worked in the NHS as a clinician—I was a senior physiotherapist—I am all too aware of the risk factors created by people smoking and being overweight, not least when it comes to surgery, and I do not need the Minister, as a non-clinician, to spell them out to me today. I would see patients pre-operatively to provide advice, and would also treat them post-operatively to address the risks through respiratory therapy and mobilisation. All clinicians understand the risk factors, which is why it is so important that money is invested in public health services—something that the Government have failed to do.

A child receives, on average, 12 minutes a year of school nursing, which includes child protection work. That means that they get only a few minutes a year of advice on diet, exercise, smoking and sex education. Clearly, that is not enough, especially as PE has also been cut. Yesterday, I met local school nurses who set out how their service was being cut, and how school nurses are being downgraded and de-professionalised to make savings in York.

When the Government switched public health back to local authorities, which have had their grants slashed, public health services also suffered. The irony is that York’s council completely cut funding for smoking cessation services and for NHS health checks. It also cut the health walks programme, which was a service to help people exercise more and lose weight. Therefore, public health measures to address smoking and weight were cut first, and then patients were denied surgery because they smoked or were overweight—you could not make it up. It again shows how fragmentation creates health detriment.

GPs are now actively writing to patients to ask them whether they smoke—not that they have a smoking cessation service to refer them to. They say that it is just “for their records”. Patients who are seen by their GP and who are considered to be in need of an assessment by a specialist for surgery fill out a form. They have to declare their smoking and weight status. One would think that the surgeon would receive a letter, highlighting the risk, and then would make a clinical assessment of that risk—but no. The referral is diverted, and the patient is sent a standard letter and a leaflet, which does not reflect on their own personal circumstances, but tells them that they smoke or are overweight and therefore need to change their ways. As a penalty, they are denied surgery. The specialist never gets the opportunity to assess the patient and make clinical judgments accordingly.

I am sure that the Minister will recall the narrative, which enticed some in this House to support the Health and Social Care Act 2012. We heard that doctors will be at the heart of the NHS and that they, not bureaucrats, will be the ones making the decisions. Then there was, “No decision about me without me.” Here we have a system where clinicians are being undermined by diktats from bureaucrats; patients and clinicians have no say; and clinical evidence is left wanting.

Before I progress, let me turn to this letter that patients are sent. First, it is generic and has no personal advice about the patient’s own clinical circumstances. By the time a patient reaches the third paragraph, they are told how obesity is costing the CCG £46 million and smoking £7.2 million a year, as if that is an issue for the patient who needs surgery. The penalties are then set out. Those who are obese have to lose 10% of their weight or reduce their BMI to under 30, or wait 12 months. Those who smoke have to stop smoking for eight weeks, or wait six months. Enclosed with the letter is a leaflet entitled “Stop before your op” and a web address so that people can find out how to get support. I went through this and the convoluted website. Any public health practitioner would tell you how inappropriate and ineffective this whole system is. There is no real help available.

The Royal College of Surgeons states that denying or significantly delaying access to NHS treatment does not help patients to lose weight or stop smoking. Now those being denied surgery are paying a heavy price. I have spent much time talking to GPs and surgeons about this matter, as well as to patients. I have also talked to the CCG, which knows that the system is totally wrong, but because it is in a financial hole and NHS England has waved it through, it is just complicit. It is not standing up for patients in York.

One more point on the process: in York, patients who were referred for surgery, ahead of this policy being introduced, had their referrals sat on. The first thing that they received was their refusal letter. It is shocking that those patients’ surgery was delayed by the CCG even though their referral was made before the policy came into effect. So what is the impact on patients? Well, it is devastating. We already know that waiting times for surgery are going up, and delay in itself creates detriment. It is true that some patients are exempt—I am talking about those needing urgent care, the removal of a tumour, or trauma surgery. However, if someone requires a joint replacement because they have not mobilised well for some time due to osteoarthritis, is in pain, and, as a result of not mobilising, have put on weight, things are very different. With a new joint, they will be back on their feet. A 12-month delay in being referred will exacerbate their problems. A year of degeneration, pain and not being able to mobilise, an initial clinical assessment and then the wait for surgery will result in a surgeon presented with a more complex operation, and a physiotherapist with a patient who is less mobile and weaker, needing more input and possibly longer in rehab. Bang!—there go all the savings from rationing and more, all at a cost to the patient and a risk that the long-term clinical outcomes will be worse.

The British Orthopaedic Association said:

“There is no clinical, or value for money, justification…Good outcomes can be achieved for patients regardless of whether they smoke or are obese”.

If someone were 20 stone, they would have to drop to 18 stone before having surgery, but if they were 18 stone, they would have to drop to 16 stone 2 lbs. One person asked why surgery is safe at 18 stone in one case, but not the other. I ask the same. A patient has presented to me who was prescribed medication that had a side effect of weight gain. They were on drugs that risked weight gain, required surgery and were denied by the same GPs who gave them the drugs.

I have had a patient who is active and works full time, but is over the weight threshold. She needs surgery to enable her to conceive. She is not young. Surgery is needed now, as recommended by her GP. However, it was denied and could result in her never having a family. A patient with hypothyroidism, a chronic condition that leads to weight gain, needs surgery for gastrointestinal abnormalities but, despite their condition, will be restricted. One patient was a very fit body builder, but was refused surgery because of their high BMI. The case for delay has not been evidenced.

From talking to epidemiologists and reading academic papers on the issue, we know that there is a strong correlation between smoking and obesity, and social and economic deprivation. As the British Medical Association said, this could also be seen as rationing on the basis of poverty. Those with mental health challenges have a higher propensity to smoke, and those with chronic conditions are more likely also to have elements of depression and possible weight gain. Many people find it difficult to lose weight or give up smoking. Minister, you know the figures. This policy is totally discriminatory.

I am quite sure that the hon. Lady did not mean to address the Chair, but means to ask the Minister whether he knows the figures.

Indeed that is the case.

This policy is totally discriminatory and is having further detriment for those with co-morbidities. It is creating problems, not solving them. All surgery carries a risk, and it is for clinicians to assess that risk. As the Royal College of Surgeons says,

“It risks preventing a patient from seeing a consultant who can advise them on the best form of treatment, which may not be surgery. Surgery may be needed to help someone lose weight.”

That point was also made by a patient who was able to mobilise after a joint replacement. This is why clinical decision making is needed. Patients have to be part of this too.

Public health programmes need restoring so that patients can properly engage with people to help to optimise their health. The passive approach of the CCG is setting patients up to fail. David Haslam, chair of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, said that rationing of surgery concerned him. He says that the NICE osteoarthritis guidelines make absolutely clear that decisions should be based on discussions between patients, clinicians and surgeons, and that issues such as smoking, obesity and so on should not be barriers to referral. These are the experts.

The Vale of York CCG has gone down this route, and others are now following, with 34% of CCGs looking to ration on the basis of obesity or smoking. Harrogate and Rural District CCG and East Riding of Yorkshire CCG target smokers and those who are overweight with a six-month delay. Wyre Forest, Redditch and Bromsgrove, and South Worcestershire CCGs ration on the basis of pain impact. South Cheshire CCG requires a BMI of less than 35—not 30—as does Coventry and Rugby CCG. The policy is spreading. Although York is the worse example of rationing, every clinician knows that it is wrong and contravenes their professional duty of care.

I am blowing the whistle on this today because the policy is directly discriminatory, clinically contraindicated and financially perverse. I would be the first in this House to advocate health optimisation programmes supporting smoking cessation or providing help to improve diet, exercise, wellbeing and lifestyles, but to leave someone in pain or without a child brings our NHS into disrepute.

This evening, I have made a clear case for why the rationing of surgery must end. As the Secretary of State said to the Health Committee, it is time to step in.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to join you this evening. I would like to start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who speaks with considerable conviction on this subject. She takes a clear personal interest in it, and she does so as a former clinician, as she indicated, so she speaks with a degree of authority.

The hon. Lady has called this evening for a complete review of CCGs’ decisions to amend their pathways for individuals who are smokers or who achieve a certain body mass index, and I will come on to that shortly. However, I would like to try to reassure her that there is no blanket ban in place in our NHS, and it is our intent to ensure that any decisions about individuals are taken according to the best clinical advice for those individuals.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be relieved to hear that, although my remarks will take us to the end of proceedings this evening, they will not necessarily take up the full allotted time. I want to start by talking a little about the fact that we are clearly facing challenges across the NHS, given the persistent increases in demand that our clinicians are seeing across all aspects of the NHS. As Members know, and as we discuss in this House seemingly every day, our attempts to meet that rising demand were set out in the “Five Year Forward View”, and have been endorsed by the Government. They recognise three principal challenges facing the NHS: health and wellbeing, care and quality, and finance and efficiency, and there is an interplay between all those pressures.

We also recognised in the “Five Year Forward View” that different areas face different challenges, so the problems facing York and the Vale of York CCG are not necessarily the same as those facing Yeovil. It is an accident as much of history as anything else—a legacy of the development of services across the country and the patchwork that developed over 150 years or so—that each area is dealing with different challenges. In part, of course, it is also a consequence of population, with those areas with greater populations facing different challenges from those with sparser populations and rural pressures.

We firmly believe that the best way to address local differences and challenges is through clinically led decision making taking place as close to the patient as possible. That is the answer the hon. Lady expected me to give, but it remains at the heart of our belief about the way the NHS should operate. GPs, as members of clinical commissioning groups, are better placed to understand the needs of their patients and the services available to them, and to shape them according to local priorities.

The Minister is talking about clinically led decision making, but in Cheshire and Merseyside CCGs, there have been announcements about rationing particular services. Can he see that, from the point of view of the patient, it sounds like this is just about saving money, rather than clinical decisions? If someone has a condition, and they know the money for it is rationed, they have a real feeling that they are not being treated in the same way as someone with a condition for which the money is not being rationed.

I do not want to get into an argument about what rationing means, but I do not recognise that services are being rationed. There are pressures as a consequence of increasing demand, and the issue is how that demand is dealt with in relation to specific services, although the hon. Lady did not mention where the rationing—to use her word—applies. Does it apply to patients who have similar issues, as suggested by the hon. Member for York Central?

Wirral clinical commissioning group has said that there will be rationing for vasectomies, surgery for damaged skin, surgical face procedures, arthroscopy shoulder surgery—all sorts of things. There are particular conditions—

The hon. Lady has made the point that she is referring to different conditions. If she would like to write to me about that, then I can give her a considered answer in relation to her CCG.

We firmly believe that decisions about treatments should be made by clinicians as they determine them to be in the best interests of patients. I will go on to develop what I mean by that in this context. We agree with both hon. Members that blanket bans on treatment are not acceptable and that they are incompatible with the NHS constitution. Every person in England entitled to NHS care has the right to receive treatment that is appropriate to his or her needs, and not to be refused access on unreasonable grounds. CCGs have a statutory duty to meet the reasonable health needs of their local population. They also have a duty to have regard to the need to reduce health inequalities, and to act with a view to improve the safety outcomes of the services they commission. To ensure that they commission cost effectively, CCGs must have regard to NICE guidelines.

I am aware that, as both hon. Members have said, some CCGs have changed their commissioning policies in a way that may have been misunderstood. The hon. Member for York Central referred to specific changes to commissioning policies on surgery, and the manner in which those changes were announced and introduced—in particular, asking patients who smoke or are obese to try to give up smoking or to lose weight in order to ensure that they have the best chances of successful treatment without complications.

It is not for me, particularly as someone without a clinical background, to comment on any of the individual cases that the hon. Lady mentioned. She did not go into specific detail, but she touched on a number of patients who have been offered an alternative pathway treatment—I think that is how the NHS would express the changed circumstances in which their treatment was offered. It is right that clinicians make decisions on an individual basis about the right treatment options for their patients as they present. In some cases, that may involve a direct route to surgery, while in others it may involve some other intervention that might put the patient into a better place to be able to respond most positively to the treatment. If that involves surgery in due course, putting themselves in a better place may lead to better outcomes.

To give an example, tomorrow I am hosting a roundtable on maternity with clinicians and leaders of the all-party parliamentary group on trying to prevent stillbirth. One of the key messages that we try to give expectant mothers is to stop smoking, because, as the hon. Lady recognises, there is a clear correlation between smoking, including smoking prior to pregnancy, and harm in pregnancy. As an ardent non-smoker, I am absolutely convinced that giving up smoking is a desirable outcome for as many of the population as possible who are able to do so. However, it is not for politicians, even those, if I may say so, who have been clinicians, to seek to take over the clinical pathway decision making for their constituents—although of course the hon. Lady was not trying to do that. It is right that clinicians make those decisions based on the individual circumstances.

In relation to Vale of York CCG, I understand that the policy development that the hon. Lady described was developed by Dr Alison Forrester, who is the CCG’s healthcare public health adviser. It was agreed by the CCG clinical executive under the responsibility of Shaun O’Connell, who is the GP lead on the CCG. It was reviewed by NHS England, so the review of the Vale of York CCG’s proposals that the hon. Lady has called for has taken place. NHS England has been working with it to ensure that its policies are in the best interests of patients.

The reality is that since the policy has been introduced clinicians have not had jurisdiction over which pathway their patient should follow and which they believe is in their best interests. They are being diverted off that path due to the policy. Clinicians are therefore saying that they should be able to determine the right assessments and treatments for those patients. Also, as part of the NHS constitution, patients need to be part of the co-production of their own healthcare in the future.

I cannot speak for the CCG. I presume that the hon. Lady’s comments are based on her conversations not only with the clinicians to whom she has referred, but with the CCG management. I assume that the CCG in her area is predominantly led by GPs, as is the case in most other areas. I have referred to the GP lead on the CCG and GPs are involved in making these decisions.

The hon. Lady has rightly said that patients who need an urgent intervention will not be affected by the policy. Patients who may have a need and are supported by their clinicians have an opportunity to apply for an individual funding request. She might like to encourage some of the patients to whom has referred to do that, to see how that process goes. That might be a route for some of those individuals.

I am in danger of breaching my promise to conclude my remarks before the set time. I want to give the hon. Lady an appreciation of the pressures that her own area is under and put the issue in a national context. We recognise that the Vale of York has had some financial pressures in recent years. Its budget increased to £394 million this year—that 3% increase is close to the average across England—and it will rise to £402 million next year. However, we recognise that the CCG is in deficit this year. It was subject to directions from last September, as part of which an interim accountable officer was appointed and is working with NHS England to put together a medium-term financial strategy. NHS England recognises that there have been pressures in the area and it is seeking to get on top of them.

On procedures, across England as a whole—this gives an idea of the demand—there were 11.6 million operations in 2016, which was 1.9 million more than in 2010, meaning a 16% increase across the country. More locally, the York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust performed more than 106,000 operations in the last financial year, which was almost 53,000 more than in 2009-10.

I am afraid that I have to conclude. As far as the performance of referral to treatment is concerned, the Vale of York has performed better than many other areas in the country. The percentage of patients seen within 18 weeks of referral in the Vale of York was 94% in December 2015, compared with 92% in the north of England. In 2014, the figure was 95% compared with 94% in the north of England and 93% across England. It is therefore outperforming its peers in the area and across the country. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.