GPs are mobilising patients to campaign against planned cuts to funding which threaten to close 100 practices in England, with doctors in east London taking the unprecedented step of blanket texting patients to raise support.
Practice managers estimate that up to 700,000 patients in England could lose their local GP surgery if controversial Government plans to reallocate millions of pounds worth of GP funding go ahead.
Although aimed at making GP funding fairer, the withdrawal of the minimum practice income guarantee (MPIG) could leave 98 practices facing funding cuts that will put them at risk of closure.
NHS England pledged earlier this year that the 98 would be offered support, but local GPs and the British Medical Association (BMA) have both attacked health chiefs for failing to put any concrete plans in place to rescue surgeries at risk.
The reorganisation has disproportionately impacted practices in inner city areas with high levels of deprivation, as well as rural surgeries with small numbers of patients who have to travel miles to see their doctor.
The changes come amid wider discontent in the profession over the falling share of NHS funding set aside for GP services.
The high-performing Jubilee Street Practice in Tower Hamlets, which stands to lose £1 million of MPIG funding over the next seven years, recently texted all patients to alert them to the risk that the surgery might close.
Meanwhile the Nightingale Practice in neighbouring Hackney has texted all patients to ask them to sign an online petition against the withdrawal of MPIG funding.
Only patients who had consented to receive text messages from their surgery received the messages, and no additional network costs were incurred, spokespeople for both practices said.
NHS England maintains that the majority of GP practices stand to gain from the reallocation of MPIG funds, but said it would work with practices that will lose out.
Their chief executive, Simon Stevens, England’s top health official, has been personally warned about the risk of practice closures by the BMA’s GP chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul, who has requested an urgent meeting on the issue.
NHS England is expected to set out its plans for surgeries at risk in London by the end of this week. However, with NHS budgets already severely stretched, any extra funding to support GP services at risk may have to come from the Government and pressure is growing for the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to intervene.
Labour’s shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said that the changes were “pull[ing] the rug from under a number of very valuable practices” at a time when people were already finding it harder to get a GP appointment.
“Jeremy Hunt must grasp the nettle and sort out this threat of GP practice closures,” he said.
Representatives from the Jubilee Street practice will meet the Conservative health minister Earl Howe next week in an attempt to reach a breakthrough.
Dr Sarah Williams, a GP at the Nightingale Practice, who set up the petition on the campaign website 38 Degrees, said that patients needed to be warned about the scale of the threat to services.
“If we don’t get publicity and start shouting about it then it will just get pushed through quietly and it will be too late,” she said. “We need to mobilise patients. There are so many people who don’t want to see their surgery close.”
The Royal College of General Practitioners backed the petition, repeating calls for the Government to guarantee that no practices would close as a result of the withdrawal of MPIG funding.
RCGP chair Dr Maureen Baker told The Independent: “We are clear that this is another unnecessary, yet very concerning, pressure for GPs to deal with and unfortunately it is patients that will suffer most.”
An NHS England spokesperson for the London region said: “We understand the challenges some London GPs are facing as a result of these changes…These changes – which are part of a national policy – will help make GP funding more equitable across London and the majority of practices will gain as a result.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said that NHS will be “supporting the most affected practices to adjust” as MPIG payments are phased out.