An English health trust has been accused of using Welsh patients as ‘a bargaining chip’ in a row over money.
It comes after the Countess of Chester Hospital said it would no longer be accepting new patients living in Wales except for in the event of emergencies or maternity cases.
There has been growing anger since the decision was revealed yesterday, particularly in Flintshire where thousands of people will be affected.
The Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has blamed the move to prohibit referrals relating to residents from over the border on unresolved funding issues after claiming it was not being paid in full to look after them.
It is understood that payments made by Welsh trusts for operations are currently lower than those made by their counterparts in England.
However, the head of the North Wales patient watchdog has revealed that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is up to date with its installments based on the levels which are set nationally.
Community health council chief officer Geoff Ryall-Harvey slammed officials from the Cheshire trust for ignoring ongoing negotiations between the Welsh Government and Westminster over payments.
He also accused them of stirring cross-border tensions and not putting patients first.
He said: “The Countess has stepped outside of this negotiation and decided to act unilaterally.
“They’re not acting in good faith and it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion but that the Countess are using Welsh patients as a bargaining chip.
“The Countess of Chester Hospital survives on Welsh patients so the idea that those patients are somehow a drain on the Countess, I would take issue with.
“For people in Flintshire it’s just as much their hospital as for people in Chester.”
He added: “If you go on social media, what we’re seeing now is lots of anti-English and anti-Welsh racist posts.”
“We have enough divisiveness at the moment and they should have thought about what this would mean.”
About 20 per cent of the Countess of Chester Hospital’s patients are estimated to live in Wales.
Bosses at the Countess have previously claimed that caring for them was ‘hard to countenance’ in light of costs of up to £4m each year.
However, First Minister Mark Drakeford has countered by stating that bills have always been paid and warned funding from the country would not be forthcoming if it closes its doors to Welsh patients.
Speaking at a scrutiny meeting this morning, he said: “There is a very direct interest that they have at stake here that they sometimes seem to underplay in the public statements that they make.
“Welsh patients are part of their bottom line in the way that the English system is run.
“If they choose not to provide those services then they will have to face up to the fact that the income stream they rely on from Wales will not come to them in future.”
North Wales politicians have also been queuing up to voice their disapproval, and have called for a resolution to be found as soon as possible.
It comes amid concerns it could lead to added pressure on busy departments at Wrexham Maelor Hospital and Ysbyty Glan Clwyd in Bodelwyddan.
Labour MP for Delyn, David Hanson, said: “This decision is not acceptable and I am deeply disappointed by it.
“The Countess of Chester was built to serve England and Wales and for services to be withdrawn from constituents is wrong.
“We should be in no doubt that this decision will put additional pressures on North Wales services and people should be allowed to use the Countess as I would expect people from England to be able to use our services when here.”
Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru’s North Wales AM Llyr Gruffydd has challenged Mr Drakeford to take ‘decisive action’.
He said: “Whatever the problems, it remains completely unacceptable for the NHS in England to deny Welsh patients access to services due to a funding dispute with Betsi Cadwaladr.
“Worried patients and concerned GPs have been contacting me to get answers and I’ve challenged the Welsh Government to come up with answers.”
In response to the backlash, Countess chief executive Dr Susan Gilby said accepting referrals without the right level of funding would put services at risk.
She added that she hoped national negotiations would bring the issue to a close.
She said: “Discussions are ongoing between national leaders and we are hopeful that we will be able to return to accepting new referrals from our Welsh commissioners once national agreement has been reached.
“To accept referrals without the appropriate funding would place our services and our patients at great risk.
“I and the trust board are not prepared to let this happen.
“This decision only affects patients who require planned consultations and who are not already on our waiting list.
“We will of course continue to provide high quality care to all emergency and maternity patients.”
By Liam Randall – Local Democracy Reporter (more here).