Sexual health funds ‘diverted into NHS debt’

NHS trusts are diverting funds meant for sexual health into paying off their deficits, a new report has warned.

Research by the independent advisory group on sexual health and HIV (IAG) finds a “substantial proportion” of the £300 million earmarked for tackling sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teenage pregnancies is not getting through to frontline services.

More than a quarter of the 191 primary care trusts (PCTs) questioned said they had absorbed all the money allocated after the 2004 choosing health white paper into their overall budget, with a further 33 saying they had absorbed most of the money.

Forty PCTs said this decision had led to a lack of staff and resources in their genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinics, and 40 also said allocated funding was not getting through to contraceptive services on the front line.

A further 31 trusts said funding for the Chlamydia screening programme had been withheld, hampering the government’s plans to make this available in all areas of the country by 2007.

Ministers have set targets to ensure people have access to GUM services within 48 hours, to cut rates of gonorrhoea and halve the number of under-18 pregnancies by 2010.

But today IAG chairwoman Baroness Gould warned: “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.”

She accepted that PCTs must allocate their own budgets in a way they see fit, and acknowledged the financial difficulties facing many NHS trusts – the combined deficits in the health service last year were at least £520 million.

But she noted that sexual health was in the government’s top six priorities and urged trusts to modernise their services in this field to ensure they could cope with increasing rates of STIs.

“The IAG believes that it is essential that strategic health authorities (SHAs) and PCTs recognise that investment now in frontline sexual health services will save them a great deal of money in the future,” she added.

“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.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said it was up to individual trusts to meet the sexual health needs of their local populations, and said the government had provided them with more funding in this area than every before.

But he insisted: “We are already seeing the extra priority investment making an impact, with more and more people receiving a GUM appointment within 48 hours, gonorrhoea rates reducing and every SHA submitting plans for the roll-out of the national Chlamydia screening programme.”