The true deficit — accountancy tricks excluded — is believed to be over £3 billion
NHS England incurred its largest ever deficit in 2015/16, according to NHS Improvement figures released today, with an overspend of £2.45 billion.
However, experts in the health sector suggest that the numbers have been cut through once-off accounting adjustments — also known as ‘shaking the balance sheet’.
The true underlying deficit is likely more than three billion pounds.
Additionally, it has been suggested that individual trusts and hospitals were pressured to take part in this rearrangement of the figures.
Sally Gainsbury of the Nuffield Trust commented:
“The size of NHS trust overspends shown in these figures is the highest ever under the current system, and hundreds of millions more than planned. The real, underlying figure is even more dramatic – over £3.2 billion. These figures are being flattered by £670m worth of accountancy measures that improve the surface picture, but without changing the reality of costs. Investment spending has been pushed down by more than a quarter compared to initial plans.”
Astonishingly, NHS Improvement has tried to pass the report off as a success story, despite its figure being £451m worse than planned, with overspends by 65 per cent of providers and nearly nine of of ten hospitals.
‘When we consider where we were six months ago [when the projected deficit was £2.8bn], NHS providers have done a great job in reducing the planned deficit,’ commented Jim Mackey, chief executive of NHS improvement.
The organisation, echoed by the Department of Health, attributes the deficits to an ageing population, increased demand for care and the costs of agency staff, refusing to acknowledge the role of cuts and chronic underinvestment.
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Heidi Alexander, accused the government of losing control of government finances, leaving patients to pay the price.
Speaking about the accounting arrangements used to achieve the £2.45bn figures, she said:
“If it is the case that hospital bosses are being put under pressure to fiddle the figures to save face for Jeremy Hunt, then an urgent investigation must take place. This is a crisis that the Tories can no longer choose to ignore. We need an urgent plan to get hospital finances back on track and to improve patient care.”
Anita Charlesworth, of the Health Foundation think tank, has said that the mood in the NHS “could not be bleaker”.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.
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