Sexual health funds ‘missing front line’

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A substantial portion of the £300 million funding earmarked for sexual health that accompanied the Choosing Health White Paper is not reaching front-line sexual health services, says a survey undertaken by the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV (IAG).

The findings contradict Government promises which have previously identified sexual health and GUM as a top six priority for the NHS this year.

Many Primary Care Trusts (PCT) and strategic health authorities (SHAs) have withheld all or part of the Choosing Health funding to cover deficits within the PCT or the wider local health economy, the research found.

Initial results indicate that funding is reaching front-line services in only 30 out of the 191 PCTs surveyed.

The results represent a ‘snapshot’ of how funding is allocated, and the situation is changing all the time. Indications were received from almost two out of three PCTs (191 PCTs responded out of 304).

51 PCTs had absorbed their entire Choosing Health allocation into the PCT budget, 33 PCTs had withheld some of most of their allocation, 31 PCTs mentioned that funding for the Chlamydia screening programme has been withheld, thereby hampering the roll-out of the programme in those areas.

40 PCTs indicated that GUM services are being affected by withholding of Choosing Health allocations (e.g. recruitment frozen, services understaffed, and lacking in adequate resources).

40 PCTs said that allocated funding has not reached contraceptive services. There are also been a number of reports of services being cut, clinics closed and staff freezes.

Baroness Gould, Chair of the IAG on Sexual Health and HIV said, “The IAG believes that it is essential that SHAs and PCTs recognise that investment now in front-line sexual health services will save them a great deal of money in the future.

“Better sexual health services bring benefits for patients as well as delivering cost savings for the NHS by reducing the number of STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

“PCTs and SHAs allocate their own budgets as they see appropriate, and many PCTs are facing difficult financial circumstances at the moment.

“Reports coming back to us indicate that sexual health services are still facing difficulties in many areas, with all that is associated with poor funding such as recruitment freezes, clinics closing, and cutting services in areas like contraception, not to mention lowering morale among staff.

“Sexual health has been designated a top six Government priority and the Department of Health is making efforts to ensure targets are met. The funding that accompanied Choosing Health was meant to help PCTs bolster services at a time when STI rates are increasing, yet according to the response that we have received from those ‘on the ground’, this is not happening in the way we had expected.

“We firmly believe that modernising sexual health services in a holistic way is the best way to deliver the 48 hour access target for GUM, and meet other sexual health needs”.

Nick Partridge, chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust said: “Local health services managers are going to have to be extremely innovative if they’re going to make the necessary improvements to sexual health services without the help of the Choosing Health money.

“Front line services need thorough modernisation in order to begin to tackle rates of sexually transmitted infections.

“It would be a great disappointment if the nation’s sexual health were sacrificed on the altar of financial balance in the NHS.”