Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Simon Stevens Failure is not an Option

Another in a very occasional series of blogs.

Yesterday (Monday 9th February 2015) in the Boothroyd Room of Portcullis House, the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee chaired by Margaret Hodge met to receive evidence for their inquiry into Care for people with learning disabilities.

As noted on Twitter by Chris Hatton, there was a real disconnect between the mood of the Select Committee and those witnesses appearing in the second half of the hearing. 

Those witnesses were: Una O'Brien, Permanent Secretary, and Jon Rouse, Director General, Social Care, Local Government and Care Partnerships, Department of Health, and Simon Stevens, Chief Executive, and Jane Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer, NHS England.

There was a feisty attitude to the committee members questioning as to why the stated target to move approximately 3,000 Learning Disabled (LD) and/or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) people out of units following the outrage of Winterbourne View by June 2014 failed.

This was a target that had little bearing on the reality of how commissioning and supply works for LD/ASD people and although traction for the target wasn't helped by the 2012 health reforms, the cultural issues surrounding responsibility and accountability extend further back. It is therefore with a raised quizical eyebrow and copious amounts of salt that I took Simon Stevens commitment to "substantial transition" in the next eighteen months.

This isn't to disbelieve the sincerity of Simon when he states that they "cannot defend the indefensible" but rather that the siren voices of caveats and funding will lure his attempts onto the rocks.

The most significant exchange for me starts at 16:37:30 when Austin Mitchell, whose questioning style is generally languid, starts discussing the failure of the money to follow the LD/ASD individual and that there are disincentives in local authority funding to facilitate the transfer into the community.

This point re local authority funding is vitally important to grasp. To explain, lets use another NHS and local authority cooperation - the transfer of elderly people with care needs out of hospital and into community facilities. This is a constant dialogue between the NHS and LAs with peak demand for flow happening in the winter. To meet the peak demand requires a market response to provide the community spaces and support required and markets respond to funding signals. Yet the funding flow from NHS to LAs operates as if the market capacity responds to a 'just in time' signal. Such an approach is fine if you have automated assembly lines but less so when the largest resource is people. If you are not prepared to pay for excess capacity then time lags will occur and any additional monies thrown at the problem as Jeremy Hunt has done is asking people to retrofit capacity.

So funding flow is important and consistency of funding is important to developing the market capacity required to enable the stated ambitions of Simon Stevens here. Austin Mitchell touches on this when finishing his question by suggesting that the process of transfer could be speeded up by a "fairer" funding settlement.

Simon Stevens response to this is to separate those trapped in the system for a long time (more than five years) and suggests using the dowry model that facilitated the closing of mental institutions in the 1980s with those who been in the system for three to six months where the CCGs or LAs will have to pick up the tab. Note that those who been in the system for 1-4 years aren't being considered in this response.

Austin Mitchell then asks the killer question at 16:39:40: "so you think the funding is fair?"

To use cricketing metaphors, this was the equivalent of a medium paced mid-70s mph trundler bowling a 90+ mph throat-high bouncer that Mitchell Johnson would have been proud of. Watching Simon Stevens body language disintegrate faster than an English batsman facing Mitchell Johnson was quite amusing.

Simon then pulls himself together with the cop-out phrase "its an accident of history". Ladies and gentlemen - welcome to the bullshit zone.

I have to thank Austin Mitchell for asking the right question here as it exposed the thinking here as being limited to "Houston, we have a problem". I don't knock the acknowledgement as the journey has to start with this step but its clear that the stated aspirations as reported by David Brindle haven't remotely been thought through.

This is why two and a half years down the line, work around pooled budgets remains at the starting gate when discussed at the PAC yesterday. A fair settlement starts with what it means to live as a LD/ASD person in their community and to live life to the full. Not as Jane Cummings suggests "as normal as possible" but to live a messy life of their choosing. Any funding settlement needs to follow and facilitate those principles. Its why campaigns such as the LBBill are so important - these need to be legal rights. Those committee members agreeing with a rights-based approach should take note.

My lasting impression of yesterday was that any thinking around this was couched in terms of the conflict of funding streams between health and social care rather than cooperation. The contested space that is the Better Care Fund which is being used more to retain existing LA services than developing new cooperative working as the NHS resents the top-slicing occurring as they experience real terms cuts to their budget. Against this background, it felt as though costs were expected to be pushed from one part of the system to another. Any idea of "fairness" in funding was therefore a shocking concept.

The top-down instruction to get people out of ATUs isn't a bad thing but we need to pool our intelligence to design the mechanisms properly else we'll Heath Robinson the process and create problems down the line. So thinking of Apollo 13 again, this scene resonates somewhat...

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