More NHS Lothian staff facing suspension over waiting times fix

NHS Lothian chief James Barbour was facing being asked to leave post. Picture: Ian Georgeson

NHS Lothian chief James Barbour was facing being asked to leave post. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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MORE staff at NHS Lothian are set to be suspended over the waiting lists scandal amid warnings it will cost up to £9 million to sort out.

Two members of staff have already been suspended over the fiddling of official figures in a bid to meet targets, and health board chairman Dr Charles Winstanley said more were likely to follow over the next two weeks.

At the same time, it has been warned that the cost of addressing the waiting lists could soar, with some patients facing a wait of at least another two months to be treated. Patient groups say they fear cuts in NHS services will follow as a result.

It comes after Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon accused NHS Lothian of “betraying their own patients” on Wednesday as she revealed a damning report from external auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers. It said staff had deliberately entered false information on patient records to make it appear that more of them were hitting the target of treating patients within 18 weeks of referral.

Once the wrongful practices stopped, around 5000 extra patients were discovered to have breached the target.

Dr Winstanley said: “There may well be more staff [to be suspended]. It’s a structured process. Two members have been suspended, that’s a neutral act, while they’re investigated. I think there will be others and that will become clear in the next week or two.”

The auditors also reported “inappropriate and oppressive management styles”, which saw staff being unduly pressured to deliver on waiting times targets, and this is now being investigated by Dr Winstanley.

An extra £4.8m has already been earmarked for tackling the glut of delayed patients, but that was only for the financial year to April, and NHS Lothian says it does not expect the backlog to be cleared until June.

Some NHS sources have estimated the final bill at around £7m, and Unison branch chairman Tom Waterson said: “The figure I’d heard was up to about £9m. That’s a worry at a time when finances are tight.”

Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients’ Association, said she feared cuts would be inevitable as money had to be redirected to solve the problem. “Of course it’s got to come out of somewhere – that’s going to knock the budget,” she said. “It has to have an effect on other services.

“Where is it going to come from? It should come out of the chief executive’s salary.”

Of the money pledged to catch up with the backlog, £3m came from NHS Lothian and the remainder from the Scottish Government. Moves have included opening operating theatres at evenings and weekends, opening an additional theatre at the Western General, and treating patients privately.

NHS Lothian has been at pains to stress that the £3m it had provided had been found through “strict financial prudence” and said it would not result in cuts to other areas.

The health board was unable to comment on the figure of £9m, but chief executive Professor James Barbour said: “Plans are now being drawn up for the forthcoming financial year but patients can be assured that we will make provision to ensure that we have sufficient money to fulfil our responsibilities.”

sgyford@edinburghnews.com