The pooling of health and social care budgets under the better care fund will continue in 2016-17, ministers have confirmed.
In a letter sent to health and wellbeing board chairs earlier this month, care minister Alistair Burt and local government minister Marcus Jones said the future minimum size of the fund, currently set at £3.8bn, cannot be confirmed until the government spending review reports in November.
However, the letter, seen by HSJ’s sister title Local Government Chronicle, added: “The government considers the better care fund to be a key tool in driving the integration of health and social care services.”
The ministers said: “We are therefore pleased to confirm our decision to continue the better care fund into the 2016-17 financial year…
“The local flexibility to pool more than the mandatory amount will remain; however, detail about the minimum size of the fund will not be confirmed until after the spending review reports on 25 November, when we will also have greater clarity on the policy framework that will underpin the better care fund next year.”
Continuation of the fund beyond 2015-16, the last year for which it has been mandated, was widely expected as it was a commitment of the Conservative election manifesto.
However, HSJ revealed last month that NHS England was seeking a freeze in the amount of money transferred from the NHS to social care under the fund. It is understood to be resisting suggestions by health secretary Jeremy Hunt that some of the additional £8bn promised to the NHS this parliament could go to social care.
Richard Humphries, assistant director of policy at the King’s Fund, told LGC it was “always pretty clear that the fund would continue”.
He said: “The $64,000 question is how much money is going to be in it. It’s no secret NHS England are pushing back on any suggestion that there should be more of that £8bn in the better care fund and I suspect they’ll probably win the day.
“The bulk of the increase that NHS England had in its budget this year went on [the better care fund] so from their point of view, rightly or wrongly, they see it as a loss to the NHS budget.”
He added: “The real issue here is that the better care fund is sticking plaster solution instead of a sustainable funding settlement for both the NHS and social care.”
The letter, dated 16 October, said national NHS bodies are set to confirm the continuation of the fund “shortly” and provide tools to help areas evaluate the effectiveness of the fund so far.
Andrew Burns, director of finance and resources at Staffordshire CC, told LGC the letter provided some “planning certainty”, which was “helpful”, but said it would have been better to have more certainty over the medium term.
He added: “It’s so disappointing that this hasn’t gone further more quickly. Is this a pause before a step up or a wind down?
“Whilst I recognise that [the better care fund’s] size and scope will be in spending review announcement, it would be helpful if that was for longer term too.”