The significance of the government’s £3.8bn better care fund is “difficult to exaggerate”, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said.
In an interview with LGC’s sister title, Health Service Journal, the Liberal Democrat leader said integrating health and social care, as well as “parity of esteem” for mental and physical health, would help millions of people and would be a route for putting the NHS on a more sustainable footing.
He also said he and treasury secretary Danny Alexander would use negotiations ahead of the autumn statement to argue for money to be set aside to fund NHS winter pressures in 2015-16.
Mr Clegg said integration and the proper resourcing of mental health, a major theme of his recent Liberal Democrat party conference speech, were good for patients and saved money.
“The great thing about the integration agenda is that it is now something that everybody pays lip service to,” he said. “Everybody agrees that the way we can put the NHS on a sustainable footing is by integrating social and health care and more effectively.”
“The difference between ourselves [the Lib Dems] and [Labour shadow health secretary] Andy Burnham is that through the better care fund we are actually putting our money where our mouth is to ensure that integration has to take place.
The £3.8bn better care fund is a pooled budget designed to incentivise councils and the NHS to integrate health and social care services.
“One of the points of the health and wellbeing boards when we established them was precisely that health and wellbeing boards can straddle local authority and NHS responsibilities by [having] joint representation of both the NHS family and social care authorities… so they are natural places for integration to be promoted locally,” he said.
“The significance of the better care fund… it is difficult to exaggerate it, because it is the first time the government has said, we mean what we say, we have to integrate these things because we are going to integrate the budgets.”
With the end of the current parliament approaching, Mr Clegg said it was important for the government to hand on the NHS “in a healthy state” to whoever came into power in May.
He said: “That’s why for me and for Danny in our discussions with David Cameron and George Osborne, right at the top of our list of priorities will be to ensure we set aside the right amount of money as such that any winter pressures, not this winter because we’ve already covered this winter, but the next winter of 2015-16 will be properly catered for. I think that is an act of basic good governance.”
He added that he wanted to “make sure that the British public know we are taking the right decisions now to ensure the NHS provides the right service, notwithstanding all the pressures that might arise in the winter of next year.”