The proposed merger of two Birmingham hospitals into one of the country's largest trusts has moved a step closer.
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt yesterday approved a consultation on proposals for the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust to merge with Good Hope Hospital NHS Trust.
She made the announcement during a trip to the Midlands, which included a visit to Heart-lands Hospital, run by the Heart of England trust. Mrs Hewitt said the three-month public consultation would be followed by a decision by NHS West Midlands whether to allow Good Hope to become part of the Heart of England.
If given the go-ahead, the merger will be on April 1.
It will include Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, Solihull Hospital, Birmingham Chest Clinic and Good Hope Hospital.
The new organisation will have a staff of almost 10,000 and serve a population of about a million people, stretching from Solihull through Birmingham and into South Staffordshire.
Mrs Hewitt said: "Patients in Birmingham deserve the best possible care.
"The Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust has an excellent track record both in terms of its financial performance and the quality of its care for patients.
"This suggests it is in a strong position to be able to address the chequered past of Good Hope and run services with better financial discipline.
"I am confident that the case has been made for the Strategic Health Authority to seek the views of the public served by the trusts and staff groups before advising me of their final decision.
"It is my belief that any changes made will lead to real improvements in patient care at the hospital and will be the right solution for people in Birmingham."
Clive Wilkinson, chairman of Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust and Good Hope Hospital NHS Trust, said: "We have developed a fresh strategic direction for Good Hope and are working closely with the Strategic Health Authority to secure the hospital's long term future as part of Heart of England Foundation Trust.
"After a year of working with Good Hope, it has become clear that the hospital provides excellent care to the local community and we intend to build on this by further expanding and developing services."
Nicola Lloyd, chairman of Good Hope Hospital, said: "The achievement of foundation status for Good Hope Hospital would secure the future of services locally for our patients.
"By working with a local team who have already travelled the journey to become an established foundation trust, we can accelerate the progress towards this objective.
"We have been working with our NHS colleagues at Heart of England for a year as a joined up management team and I hope the public support us on our journey to even greater integration to stabilise the future of healthcare for the patients we serve, so that we can continue to provide local services at Good Hope Hospital".
Mrs Hewitt's visit to the Midlands coincided with the publication of a cross-party health select committee study.
The study, entitled NHS Deficits, attacked an absence of financial control in the NHS, which it claimed had resulted in cuts that have affected staff morale. It said tackling debts by cutting the amount spent on education and training was unacceptable and found "compelling evidence of a failure of financial management" within the NHS.
"The most basic errors have been made. There are too many exampled of poor financial information, inadequate
monitoring and an absence of financial control," it said.
The NHS ended last year with debts of £512 million, but Mrs Hewitt has promised it will achieve overall balance by the end of this financial year.