Carnlough GP surgery: Disappointment at Health Minister’s response to Mid and East Antrim Council

Health Minister Robin Swann has said that making the temporary GP surgery in Carnlough permanent would be “unfair to other GP practices and would have to be financed at the expense of other practices”.

The Minister was responding by letter to correspondence from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council demanding the reinstatement of fully-funded GP services in the seaside village after surgery hours were reduced to two half days.

The Minister has insisted that the funding arrangement was “never to last indefinitely and was over and above the standard funding which all GP practices received based on their patient population”.

The Cushendall-based Glens of Antrim Medical Centre agreed to accept 1,381 patients in February 2017 following the closure of a GP practice in Glenarm.

The Glens of Antrim Medical Centre's Carnlough surgery (behind chemist). Picture: Google

As a result, it received additional temporary funding support for three years to assist with the additional workload of adding these patients to the practice, the Minister’s letter to councillors stated.

It went on to say that the Department “continues to fund in full the rent and rates for the branch surgery premises in Carnlough”.

“We have offered the practice additional funding for a nurse to provide  treatment room services at the Carnlough premises. This would be of particular benefit to older patients, for instance for blood pressure checks,” the Minister explained.

“The available funding would enable up to five half-day treatment room sessions every week at either Carnlough or the main surgery premises at Cushendall.

“All rural practices face challenges with patient access and geography. Glens of Antrim Medical Centre provides a vital and much-valued service to its patients and we will continue to work closely with them.

“As you will know, we have finite funding for GP services and for all health and social care provision in NI.”

Speaking at last month’s meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Alliance Coast Road councillor Alderman Gerardine Mulvenna said that funding expected to be ongoing has stopped.

She indicated that the Glens of Antrim centre had funded the service for a further year while it “sought to rectify the funding situation”.

“They went beyond the call of duty and had absolutely no obligation to do this.”

At a meeting of the council on Monday evening, she said: “It is extremely disappointing that the Department of Health, to date, will not engage with Glens of Antrim surgery.

“It appears that the Department seems to be treating all rural practices the same. There appears to be no thought given to these unique circumstances.

“There was never any mention of this three-year thing. It has come out of the blue. There was absolutely no mention of it,” she claimed.

Coast Road DUP Councillor Andrew Clarke said it was “extremely disappointing” to have “someone who will not engage with locals”.

Dr John McSparran, Glens of Antrim Medical Centre, has said he fears it may take a tragedy to occur for a review to take place.

He insisted that a “full-time service” was to be provided in Carnlough from the outset,

Dr McSparran added: “The board says funds were only temporary. We vehemently disagree with this.”

He went on to say that the practice has “kept the surgery going” in Carnlough for a year at its own expense.

In a statement on social media, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: “I am disappointed that the Health Minister is refusing to meet with a cross-community group of politicians and members of the Carnlough Community Association to discuss the closure of the GP surgery in Carnlough.

“At a packed public meeting over five weeks ago, it was agreed that a meeting should be sought with Minister Swann. Despite writing on two occasions and speaking personally with the Minister, he is refusing to meet to discuss this matter.”

Carnlough Community Association says: “We committed to keeping the community informed with any updates regarding the campaign to save the GP surgery in Carnlough and have been kept up to date with efforts being made by elected officials to meet with Minister Swann.

“The SOS Action Group met last week and there should be a further update in the very near future.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “Glens of Antrim Medical Centre have indicated their intention to reduce their Carnlough branch surgery service to two half days per week. This took effect in June.

“Carnlough branch patients will, course, will be able to attend the main surgery premises in Cushendall where a full-time service will continue to be available. There has been no cut in funding to Glens of Antrim Medical Centre.

“The practice did receive an additional support payment which came into effect on 10 February 2017 when the Practice agreed to accept 1,381 patients from Antrim Coast Medical Practice.

“This temporary funding was to support the Practice for a period of three years to enable them to manage the registration and complete an initial clinical review of these additional patients. The funding was not indefinite, it was additional temporary support offered to any GP practice which take on additional patients following the closure of a nearby GP practice.

“This additional support was extended for a further year due to the particular impact of Covid-19 and is over and above the standard  remuneration GP practices receive which is based on patient population of the practice.

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“Even though the agreement ended officially on 31 March 2021, the funding for these 1,381 patients now forms part of the increased standard remuneration this practice now receives.”