Health bosses have come under fire for ending the termination of pregnancy service at the Countess of Chester Hospital meaning some women will have travel out of area.
Chester MP Chris Matheson has started a petition to persuade Countess bosses to reverse their decision because vulnerable pregnant women will have to travel to Liverpool from next April.
Doctors running the 22-year-old service have publicly raised concerns about the ‘loss of a quality, safe, local service’.
The Countess currently sees 400 attendances a year resulting in about 300 terminations.
But hospital managers say the former Tory-led council decision to hive off local sexual health services to East Cheshire NHS Trust undermined the once integrated service, making the stand-alone termination service no longer ‘clinically, organisationally or financially sustainable’.
Responsibility for public health in England, including sexual health services, was handed to councils in April 2013.
In the short run, the service will be taken over by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service charity until the service has been recommissioned following a tendering process.
Mr Matheson said: “Under the new proposals, the new private provider will not be able to support women with maternal health problems who require hospital care. Vulnerable women with mental health or drug and alcohol issues, some overweight women and women with chronic health conditions will also need to travel to Liverpool in order to terminate their pregnancy.
“This could lead to people with the most challenging personal circumstances having more difficulty in accessing the service.”
Mr Matheson fears the decision could potentially lead to ‘the privatisation of yet more local NHS services without any real consultation’ and invites people to sign his petition by visiting his website.
He added: “I recognise that for some, abortion is a difficult issue, but the law in this country is clear. For women seeking a termination it is never an easy process. Some women making this choice will be vulnerable and scared. It is therefore vital for the safety and well-being of patients that services are available in local and familiar surroundings.”
Dr Suzanne Kirkwood, a gynaecologist and clinical lead within the service, told CWaC's Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Sub Committee that Countess management had used ‘incorrect figures’ in justifying the closure of the service which serves West Cheshire and North Wales and had helped to reduce the local rate of teenage pregnancy.
'Loss of a quality, safe, local service'
She said: “I understand from documents presented to you tonight that the Countess of Chester management has signed the service over to BPAS. This is a loss of a quality, safe, local service to this vulnerable group of women and we are very upset on behalf of the women of West Cheshire and beyond.”
She quoted new best practice guidelines from the Royal College Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that emphasise abortion services should be embedded in maternal/women’s health services to avoid stigma to both patients and staff.
Chester's Labour councillor and committee member Gill Watson said: “Following on from the fury surrounding the re-commissioning of sexual health services to Cheshire East last year, I would hope that the Countess will learn lessons from the mistakes of others and open a proper consultation to fully engage with staff and the public on this issue.”
From next April the service will be taken over by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) charity, which already provides some services locally, who will offer patients the choice of a local anaesthetic procedure at its Chester Clinic but women preferring a general anaesthetic procedure must travel to its Liverpool clinic.
The provider is enhancing its current local anaesthetic service in Chester to accommodate clients with pregnancies up to approximately 18 weeks reducing the number of patients having to travel.
In addition, surgical services within a hospital setting are available to the BPAS within the North West for the small cohort of women requiring more specialised care. Agreements are in place to assist with travel expenses. In the longer term, the service will be put out to tender with a public consultation currently under way.
Countess of Chester Hospital chief executive Tony Chambers said: “When this hospital lost its sexual health services contract earlier this year following a tender process, myself and the doctors working here were extremely vocal about the risks and impact of this decision destabilising other services. At the time, some of our longest serving and experienced consultants were legally required to transfer to the new sexual health services provider, East Cheshire NHS Trust.
“It is not a decision we have taken lightly as a hospital. We are acting in the interests of our patients and on the recommendations of some of our most senior medical leads. We have informed West Cheshire Clinical Commissioning Group, who buy the service on behalf of the local population and will now reach a decision on an alternative local provider.”
Abortion service 'not clinically, organisationally or financially sustainable'
David Semple, divisional medical director for planned care services at the Countess, said: “The obstetric and gynaecological team feel the current termination of pregnancy service is not clinically, organisationally or financially sustainable and therefore we are unable to support the continuation of the service at the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in its current format.”
The West Cheshire Clinical Commissioning Group is consulting the public to help shape the future of the termination service.
Spokesman Phil Rostance said: “The consultation runs until 11 December and we are encouraging members of the public to let us know their views by either emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephoning 0151 296 7068.
“During the last decade, half the terminations undertaken in west Cheshire have been through the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). They have an excellent track record when it comes to quality of service, care and safety.
“Once we know the outcome of the consultation then health providers will be invited to tender for the service. The clinical commissioning groups across Cheshire and Merseyside will then have to be totally satisfied with the health service specification before a contract is awarded. The service will remain free to women.”
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