Local Democracy Reporting: The passing comment which led to an NHS spending crisis being uncovered

Leigh

In the latest of our weekly reports on stories being uncovered by the country’s local democracy reporters, Leigh Boobyer, based at Reach title GloucestershireLive, looks back on a story which took him well beyond a council agenda…

Tip-offs can come in many forms.

At times they can be a dud from a well-meaning resident, but sometimes they can send the Geiger counter off the scale.

For me, one passing comment about a deficit rise at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust exposed a computer glitch which had torn a £10million black hole in its books.

The Trust had been documenting month-by-month last year the increase in shortfall despite efforts to grind the money it owes to a halt. This however was not picked up by journalists and simply mentioned to me as something to take note of.

The Trust’s deficit had almost doubled from £18million to £32million, with the bulk of the increase — £10million — stemming from a failure to keep record of operations so the Trust couldn’t claim the money back for them.

That system, called TrakCare, provided by InterSystems, failed to keep a record of all activity taking place.

But a cursory trawl through a council document could never have uncovered this, for a 68-page report ahead of health scrutiny committee had buried this information within two paragraphs.

What’s more, a Trust report released to the board before a March 2018 meeting drew up 21 search results for TrakCare in a word-search.

“Data quality issues”, “staff are still getting used to it”, “income recovery will be reduced”: These are some of the words used in the Trust report which do not make the problem plain.

Yet the impact meant the big hospitals in Cheltenham and Gloucester are badly in the red to the tune of £32m and a third of the losses were down to a computer failure.

Trust chief executive Deborah Lee told the committee that TrakCare — a computer system introduced in 2016 — failed to record, capture and account all activity taking place.

Because of the failure, the Trust could not recover as much money as it had expected, Ms Lee added.

She said she was “disappointed” in certain factors which triggered the rise, but said quality of care “was not affected”.

In 2016, the Trust had reported a £30m deficit even though they had expected to be in surplus.

It’s been in special financial measures since then, but it’s recently secured £40million to improve its ageing buildings and its net savings targets.

Most hospitals in the South West are currently in surplus.

The reaction, however, was not one I expected.

At a health scrutiny meeting, the news that the Trust was in the red did not strike a chord with members.

One councillor asked a series of questions to Ms Lee on the TrakCare failure, only for the rest of the committee to move onto the next item, without actually scrutinising the problem.

The news thankfully did gain traction, first featuring on Gloucestershire Live, then BBC Radio Gloucestershire and then BBC Points West as the lead story on its 6pm show.

I was alerted by BBC news editor Jason Dean that my story had made the reel from a tweet, which read: “Tonight’s lead story on @bbcpointswest at 6.30 is based on some fantastic investigative journalism by @LeighBoobyer revealing a £32m black hole for just 2 hospitals in Gloucestershire — £10m blamed on a simple computer failure”.

The tweet alone was reward, especially after the news broke less than a week after ploughing through an all-night reporting shift at the Cheltenham local elections.

The story still has to this day plenty of road to run. Many questions still need to be answered, such as will the Trust seek compensation from InterSystems, and were foreign nationals ineligible for free treatment not because of TrakCare failure and so on.

Questions like these cannot be answered due to commercial sensitivity.

Ms Lee said events like these are always complex, adding that “it looked like there had been considerable preparations for the deployment but it wasn’t good enough.”

I’m the Local Democracy Reporter for Gloucestershire. I am just one of 150 across the country paid for by the BBC licence-payer’s cash to scrutinise the work of local authorities as regional papers lost that resource due to years of cuts.

Based at Gloucestershire Live, I cover and hold to account decisions taken at a local level. From a county council, six district councils, NHS bodies, Police and Crime Commissioner — anyone who spends public cash and acts in the name of the people it serves is for the taking.

I am glad the story went so far, and it owes much to this new scheme working well.

Read this: The FOI which changed council policy