A representative from NHS England has faced heavy scrutiny from councillors after millions of pounds was pulled from mid and South Essex to bail out a neighbouring health authority.
It was revealed in June that the authority responsible for overseeing healthcare in Cambridge and Peterborough had run up a deficit of almost £200million and to solve the problem NHS England instructed other authorities across the East of England to contribute towards a bailout.
In mid and south Essex, this means Thurrock has had to hand over £480,000, Castle Point and Rochford handed over £579,000 and Southend contributed £610,000.
One of the hardest hit was Basildon and Brentwood’s commissioning group, which was asked for £788,000.
Councillors at Thurrock’s Health and Wellbeing Overview and Scrutiny Committee told NHS England representative Wayne Bartlett-Syree that the demand meant delaying vital work in the region, including on a new mental health crisis service designed to relieve pressures on A&E departments.
The new mental health service, which brings a dedicated 111 emergency line as well as support centres to Southend, Chelmsford and Thurrock, was supposed to be launched at the end of the year but will now be pushed back until April 2020.
At the meeting, Mr Bartlett-Syree told committee members that it was a “tricky” decision, but the NHS is “considerably challenged when it comes to money”.
He went on to promise that money removed from the region would be returned over the course of a three-year period, starting in 2020.
But the explanations did little to reassure members of the council.
Meeting chair Cllr Victoria Holloway said: “It is tricky, but Cambridge and Peterborough have platinum service. They have overspent their budget by millions and millions and now what that means for Thurrock is our mental health crisis service has been delayed by months and months.”
Kim James, who represents Healthwatch Thurrock, said the way the situation had been handled by the NHS was an “absolute disgrace”.
“A lot of work has been done on new services very, very much needed and they are the ones now facing delays,” she said.
Meanwhile Roger Harris, who is the Corporate Director of Adults, Housing and Health, said it was “deplorable” that NHS England had failed to contact him about the issue.
Mr Bartlett-Syree promised that an oversight group was being put in place in order to ensure the Cambridge and Peterborough authority is heavily scrutinised over their finances so that it doesn’t happen again but admitted previous attempts to get it under control had been unsuccessful.
Ms Holloway said she had to “press very hard” to convince the NHS to send someone to the meeting and revealed a series of letters in which Ann Radmore, regional director of the NHS in the East of England, initially insisted only on a “closed session”.
Ms Holloway had refused the proposal, saying there was no reason to exclude the public.
Cllr Trevor Harp, who oversees health in Southend, said the £610,000 deducted from borough was from reserves and so it had little impact on planned projects.
He went on to label the mental health service “vital” and said he would like to see it launched sooner.