Dan Parton cutWith clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) taking over commissioning of local health services, now is the time to ensure they give services for people with learning disabilities the prominence they deserve.

April 1 saw widespread changes come into force in the NHS, the biggest and most controversial for many years, which will affect people with learning disabilities just as much as everyone else.

Briefly, here are a couple of the main changes, according to the Web MD site. From April 1, several hundred CCGs, run by GPs and other clinicians, have replaced primary care trusts and strategic health authorities, and take over their responsibility for about £60 billion of state funding.

CCGs make commissioning decisions and determine care budgets, although their work is overseen by NHS Commissioning Boards.

The reforms also allow NHS services to be offered by "any willing provider", which means that private sector providers can compete against the NHS and its partners to provide services. Critics have said that there is a risk of a ‘rush to the bottom’, as providers cut costs to win contracts, thus driving down quality of treatment for patients.

For me, other worries have not been adequately addressed, such as whether CCGs will effectively commission specialist learning disability care services. My main worry – and that of others – is that if the CCG does not have someone in it with an interest in, or in-depth knowledge of, learning disability issues, which can be niche and (seemingly) expensive, then services may be marginalised in favour of more mainstream ones.

But now is the time to influence CCGs to ensure this doesn’t happen. Learning disability charity Mencap has taken the lead on this by launching a charter, which aims to address the healthcare inequalities that people with learning disabilities experience.

Mencap’s charter, Getting it right for people with a learning disability, a charter for Clinical Commissioning Groups, will see CCGs sign up to a number of pledges including: to provide on-going learning disability awareness training for NHS staff in their area; to support  all GP surgeries in offering annual health checks to people with a learning disability; and to set out evidence for what they have done to meaningfully involve patients and their families, in the planning of local health services.

Hopefully CCGs will take up this charter and follow through on it rather than just paying it lip service. But more can be done by others. Now is the time for people with learning disabilities, along with family members, friends and carers to get involved with organisations that can influence CCGs, such as Healthwatch England and Local Healthwatch, which are there to represent the views of service users, carers and the public.

In addition, CCGs and GP practices are being encouraged to develop Patient Participation Groups, which will be able to monitor developments and influence decision-making at a local level.

While the changes to the NHS may be controversial for some, we have to work with them and, the mechanisms set up to give patients a say, have to be used to do just that – and give the best chance for people with learning disabilities to get their voices heard and ensure the services they need are put, or remain, in place.