Edinburgh health board under fire after 'drugs funding held back to balance budget'

HEALTH bosses have been labelled "perverse" after holding back £1.3m of drug and alcohol addiction funding in order to help fill a black hole in under-pressure finances.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that drug deaths in the Capital have more than doubled over the last 10 years. Figures from the National Records of Scotland showed that there were 95 deaths last year, compared to 45 in 2009.

The Edinburgh Integration Joint Board (IJB), a council and NHS partnership that manages health and social care services, was awarded £1.4m from the Scottish Government for substance misuse services in August 2018 - but has still not handed over the money to be spent on services. In February, the Edinburgh Drug and Alcohol Partnership was privately told that £1.3m of the funding would be used for "servicing overspends elsewhere" and only £100,000 has been allocated to addiction services so far.

In December last year, Glasgow Integration Joint Board agreed spending plans for £2m of drug and alcohol funding to be used in 2018-19 as well as the following two financial years.

Drugs deaths have doubled in Edinburgh over the last decade

The IJB still hasn't agreed a balanced budget for 2019-20, despite being four months into the financial year and only managed to do so last year following a bail-out by the council and NHS Lothian after savings targets were missed.

Maria Arnold, development officer for the Substance Use Network Edinburgh, said the funding has "remained largely unspent and has been carried forward as reserves" by the IJB. Spending plans for the money were drawn up in October, one month after the money arrived from Holyrood.

She added: "Considering the plans were produced in good time, it's really frustrating to consider the loss of this fund for a vulnerable community and we are really confused as to why it took almost a year to consider these plans.

"There doesn't seem any social justice at all in these populations losing out just because we as a system somehow failed to prioritise it. It seems a perverse time not to be spending money specifically allocated to this issue."

She added: "The broad perception of this redirection of funds is that it relates to the stigma associated with drug and alcohol use and its low priority for the IJB.

"Many organisations put a lot of time into developing plans at short notice and somehow these couldn't be timetabled for the IJB to consider for almost a year. We feel it's really important we don't let the financial deficit overshadow a set of very real and immediate risks to people."

A total of 1,187 deaths in Scotland during 2018 were the most since records began in 1996 and the highest rate in the EU, prompting calls for the UK Government to radically overhaul policy.

Last month, the addiction services spending plan was agreed by the board - but a decision will be taken in August asto whether the funding will be handed over in full as part of wider budget considerations.

Conservative Lothian MSP Miles Briggs said: “It is inexcusable that funds that were meant for drug and alcohol services have been withheld and unutilised for almost a year.

“Waiting times for alcohol and drug partnerships in Lothian are higher than anywhere else in Scotland and these were funds that they badly needed over the last year."

In March, Dr Duncan McCormick, public health chief at NHS Lothian, warned the IJB that funding cuts to drug and alcohol services would lead to "increased rates of harm, including premature death".

An IJB spokesperson said: “The Edinburgh IJB approved its annual funding plan for alcohol and drugs services at its meeting in June, as recommended by the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership.”

The Scottish Government said the full funding should be spent on drug and alcohol services.