An NHS campaign group has criticised hospital bosses for planning to merge two trusts without consulting the public – and called for the move to be deferred.
Sussex Defend the NHS said that the trusts – in Brighton and Worthing – were due to merge in three weeks’ time at the start of April.
But, the group said, there had been minimal consultation with patients and the public who would be unaware of how the merger might affect them.
There are concerns that patients may have to travel further for hospital appointments as services are consolidated on fewer sites – as has happened after previous mergers.
The proposal involves merging Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust (BSUH) and Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
The two trusts have operated with the same senior management since April 2017 after BSUH was placed in special measures by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the official heath and care watchdog.
The trusts said that they had engaged with regulators, partners and stakeholders, including patients, staff and elected representatives.
But they said: “A public consultation is not required because we are not proposing a substantial change to services.”
Sussex Defend the NHS said: “Local hospital mergers should not go ahead without full public consultation.
“The senior leadership team at Western Sussex Hospitals, led by chief executive Marianne Griffiths, is proposing a merger with Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust to be completed by Thursday 1 April this year, barely three weeks away.
“This is despite the fact there has been minimal consultation with any of the many communities seriously impacted by this initiative.
“NHS campaign groups across East and West Sussex have demanded that Western Sussex Hospitals bosses defer the implementation of the merger until a genuine public consultation has been organised, incorporating an impact assessment.
“The proposals, including an account of future plans, should be offered for detailed scrutiny to the NHS trade unions and the staffs of both trusts, all relevant bodies across the affected areas, such as the local authority health overview and scrutiny committees (HOSCs), local Healthwatch organisations and, of course, the public.
“The Western Sussex Hospitals chief executive has refused to enter into a public consultation, claiming that it is unnecessary as there will be no change to service provision.
“Sussex Defend the NHS believes that it is unimaginable that such major change in the delivery of healthcare, involving hundreds of thousands of people and billions in revenue, is being pushed through with no public consultation, especially as the NHS is a publicly funded, publicly accountable body.
“Even local authority leaders have been unable to ascertain what the changes are going to mean for their constituents.
“The only authority that is aware of the trust’s plans is NHS England, as Western Sussex Hospitals has had to submit a full business case to national health bosses in London before the merger was given the go-ahead.
“If the trust will not sanction a public consultation, then in view of the tight timescale, the three local MPs and the city councillors should be entitled to be made privy to the full business case, thus giving them the opportunity to have an overview of the new healthcare delivery arrangements.
“And since Western Sussex Hospitals chief executive Marianne Griffiths has formally notified the health trade unions at both trusts, inviting them to talks aimed at arranging for staff at the Brighton hospitals to transfer to her trust (known as TUPE, Transfer of Undertakings, Protection of Employment), the health unions of both trusts have a right to demand that they are able to scrutinise the trust’s future plans as well.”
The trusts said: “Western Sussex Hospitals and Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals have been working together with a shared leadership team for four years.
“During this time, WSHT became the first ever acute hospital trust to be rated outstanding by the CQC in all key inspection areas and BSUH jumped three inspection ratings to good overall and outstanding for caring.
“Additionally, BSUH was revealed by the NHS Staff Survey to be the most improved trust in the country.
“The benefits of working together became even more apparent during the first wave of coronavirus last year and, as the shared leadership arrangements were due for review, these benefits, and the potential gains from even greater integration, informed the boards’ decision, on Wednesday 1 July 2020, to pursue a merger.
“The trusts have since been following a rigorous and closely monitored merger/acquisition process under Section 56A of the NHS Act 2006.
“As part of this process, we have been regularly engaging with our regulators, partners and stakeholders, including patients, staff and elected representatives.
“A public consultation, however, is not required because we are not proposing a substantial change to services.
“In fact, we have committed to continuing to invest in the services delivered by WSHT and BSUH.
“The continuous improvement of all our patient services is the driving force behind our proposed merger and we are confident that by coming together we will continue to improve hospital care in Sussex.”
Dame Marianne Griffiths said last July that the trusts would develop a full business case with staff, partners, governors, members and local communities involved in creating the new organisation.
She added: “We want everyone in our communities to play a part in shaping the future of health care in Sussex and their views will play a valuable role in building a new trust.”
However, the business case was submitted to NHS England and NHS Improvement in December without being made public – and requests to see the business case have been refused.
BSUH runs the Royal Sussex County Hospital, the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital and the Sussex Eye Hospital, in Brighton, and the Princess Royal Hospital, in Haywards Heath.
Western runs Worthing General Hospital, St Richard’s Hospital, in Chichester, and Southlands Hospital, in Shoreham.