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Mental health still losing out in NHS funding, report finds

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By  Health policy editor

King’s Fund says physical health services are still getting bigger budgets, five years after ministers promised ‘parity of esteem’

Mental health care providers continue to receive far smaller budget increases than hospitals, five years after ministers pledged to create “parity of esteem” between NHS mental and physical health services.

The disclosure, in a new report by the King’s Fund, has sparked concern that mental health patients are receiving poorer quality care because of the widening gap in income.

Budgets of NHS mental health trusts in England rose by less than 2.5% in 2016-17, far less than the 6% boost received by acute trusts and those providing specialist care.

It is the fifth year in a row that NHS bosses gave physical health services a larger cash increase, even though ministers have repeatedly stressed the need to give mental health services more money.

Mental health trusts in England received income increases of just 5.5% between 2012-13 and last year, whereas budgets for acute hospitals rose by 16.8% over the same period, new research by the thinktank shows.

The author Helen Gilburt, a fellow in health policy at the King’s Fund, warned that the continuing inequality in funding was preventing mental health trusts employing enough staff, which is damaging patient care.

“While the NHS is in a difficult position, the slow growth in mental health trust funding and the problem of not having enough staff are both having a real impact on patients, who are having to put up with services that are being stretched to the limit,” she said.

Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the charity Mind, said: “Mental health has been under-resourced for too long, with dire consequences for people with mental health problems.

“If people don’t get the help they need, when they need it, they are likely to become more unwell and need more intensive – and expensive – support further down the line.”

More positively, 84% of mental health trusts last year received a budget increase from NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) – a rise on the 51%, 60% and 56% which had done so in the previous three years. The mental health investment standard, brought in in 2015-16, compels all CCGs to give mental health services an annual rise which at least mirrors their own budget increase.

Gilburt said, however, that “the [overall] funding gap between mental health and cute NHS services is continuing to widen. As long as this is the case, the government’s mission to tackle the burning injustice faced by people with mental health problems will remain out of reach”.

NHS England said funding for mental health services rose in 2016-17 by 6.3% to £9.7bn, compared with a smaller increase – of just 3.7% – in other parts of the health budget. It said mental health was also receiving a slightly larger share of overall CCG spending, at 13.6%.