Cheshire no longer exists. A few years ago the multitude of Town, City and Borough Councils across Cheshire were all brought together into two unitary authorities, Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East. From that moment Cheshire as an individual entity disappeared, although clearly the word still describes a geographical area for many people, and when I am asked where I live and work, I will always say ‘Cheshire’ rather than ‘Cheshire West and Chester’. (I actually live in Cheshire East and work in Cheshire West and Chester…from now on I will use the acronyms of CWAC for Cheshire West and Chester and CEC for Cheshire East Council).
The local authority boundaries have caused a problem for NHS commissioning because our Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) areas are not coterminous with them. Our local hospital, Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust is based in Crewe (in Cheshire East), but patients from many parts of the Vale Royal area of CWAC also use it as their local hospital (as an aside Vale Royal was a previous Borough Council and no longer exists either, but was recognizable enough by local people for us to provide the name of our CCG). In contrast our two neighbouring CCGs tend to have their patients flowing to either the Countess of Chester NHS Foundation Trust (in Chester, unsurprisingly), or East Cheshire NHS Trust (in Macclesfield), each of which is entirely within the footprint of either CEC or CWAC.
Why am I telling you all of this? Partly to express a little of complexity we have grown up with and dealt with over the years of our CCGs existence, and partly to help explain some plans the four Cheshire CCGs have moving forwards.
As you may have already realised, there is a reasonable amount of duplication occurring across the 4 CCGs. Our mental health provider, for example, provides mental health services across the entire Cheshire area and beyond (into Wirral). We have also recently had cause to look at some procedures of limited clinical priority which we have done again over a Cheshire wide footprint to reduce the potential for a post-code lottery. It would make sense f we could do some of this together, and only once, without having to go to gain approval and agreement from four separate Governing Bodies, each of which might make a slightly different decision, bringing about the very post code lottery we were trying to avoid in the first place.
There is also an issue of capacity. In these times of limited financial resource the CCGs are running light. Capacity to commission effectively is stretched, and just when we wish to be working on transformation of local health and social care, and moving towards the development of Accountable Care Systems, we are in danger of not having the workforce to press ahead.
We are hoping that we can solve some of these problems by creating a Joint Commissioning Committee across the four CCGs. (For clarity I am talking about NHS Vale Royal CCG, NHS South Cheshire CCG, NHS West Cheshire CCG and NHS Eastern Cheshire CCG). The idea behind the joint committee is that we can delegate authority for some decision making up to a joint committee, ensuring that things that only need doing once, are only done once, and then freeing up capacity in the CCGs to focus on the work that really does need to happen locally. The key part of the local work will be in the continuing development of Accountable Care. We currently have three strong, local integration systems based around the footprints of the three local hospitals (Connecting Care in Central Cheshire, the West Cheshire Way in West Cheshire and Caring Together in Eastern Cheshire). It is possible that these will form into three Accountable Care Systems. Over time these may take on the bulk of the functions currently undertaken by the CCGs, while a merged Cheshire Commissioning Organisation could provide a strategic commissioning function across the whole – but we are a way off that yet!
The Joint Committee is the first step, and regardless of possible future directions of travel seems to be an important one that I would endorse. We need to be doing all that we can to be lean and effective. We do not want to be spending time on things that are being duplicated, and we do want to be able to spend the time on the things that matter locally. I believe that the joint committee will help us to do this.
So, what have we done so far, and how are things progressing? The four Governing Bodies have met individually and together to discuss and have approved the direction of travel. This has included executives, lay members and clinicians all working on the Terms of reference for the Joint Committee that are now in draft form and about to be approved. The Accountable Officers and Chairs from the four CCGs have been working together to bring this to this point, with numerous formal and informal conversations and email exchanges.
The next step is for the Memberships of the four CCGs to consider these proposals. Clinical Commissioning Groups are membership organisations, and the GP practices are the members. They are the ones who will ultimately need to approve any changes, and need opportunity to consider, discuss and decide. We neglect our local GPs at our peril. The Health and Social Care act that created CCGs in 2013 put clinicians at the heart of the commissioning process and GPs in the driving seat. We need to reassure our GP colleagues that any changes will maintain this ethos of clinically led decision making and ongoing clinical engagement. I would hope to be able to provide some of this reassurance. Clinicians have already been involved in this work (not just the Clinical Chairs, but also the GPs on the Governing Body), and we have ensured that clinical representation on the joint committee is enshrined into the Terms of Reference. The important point will be in deciding the work plan – i.e. deciding what the Joint Committee is actually going to do. This is not yet agreed, and I would suggest that the Memberships need to be kept fully informed of this process, along with the Governing Bodies.
The bottom line, in my view, is that we need to develop space to breathe, act and develop our plans at a CCG level. Without this, we are going to struggle with our plans for integration and movement towards Accountable Care. The Joint Committee should provide some if this.
If you want to follow how it all goes, then watch this space!
Dr Jonathan is a GP at Swanlow practice in Winsford, Cheshire, and Clinical Chair of NHS Vale Royal Clinical Commissioning Group
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @DrJonGriffiths