Learning disability charities have reacted with concern to the contents of the government’s health and social care bill, which paves the way for GPs to commission local health services.

The bill sets out the government’s plans to modernise the NHS, which it says will lead to better quality care and improved outcomes for patients. It includes measures such as handing responsibility for commissioning health services to GPs, who would base their decisions on local need. The government also claim patients would be more involved in decisions about their treatment and care. Care services minister, Paul Burstow, said at the launch of the bill: “We’re updating the NHS for the 21st Century by making it more personal and more local. The NHS will always be free at the point of use and fair to all who need it. By trusting patients and carers to make the best choices we will make the NHS focus on delivering high quality and safe care.” But the reaction from charities to the Bill has been cool.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said: “We’re concerned about the impact devolving the commissioning of services to GPs will have on disabled people, especially those with rare conditions or complex needs who require specialist equipment and services. “The Government has not yet commented on exactly how the ‘specialist commissioning function’ will work with GP consortia. Clarity on this is vital to ensure that health services for low incidence groups of disabled people will not be forgotten as patients are given more power to influence the services and treatments GPs commission. “A patient-centred approach is encouraging but there also needs to be a robust approach to balancing the needs of different patient groups to ensure equitable access to health care for all.”

Mark Goldring, chief executive of Mencap, shared Hawkes’ concerns. “Mencap surveyed GPs in mid-2010 about their experiences of treating people with a learning disability,” he said. “Almost one third had not been trained in how to make reasonable adjustments and more than half said they needed specific guidelines on how to do this. “With GPs now being given a key role not only as gatekeepers but also now as commissioners, this lack of knowledge must be addressed as a matter of urgency if people with a learning disability are to have access to the good quality healthcare they need.”

On the wider reforms to the NHS, Goldring emphasised the need to ensure people with a learning disability have equal access to healthcare. “The health needs of people with a learning disability and the progress that has been made within the NHS must not be lost in these changes. “Even after the launch of Mencap’s landmark ‘Death by Indifference’ report more than three years ago, people with learning disabilities are still dying needlessly and facing discrimination within the health system.”