Primary care is to be reorganised in Northern Ireland from 1 April next year, with the setting up of new primary care organisations and the abolition of fundholding, it was announced last week.

The decision to form local health and social care groups, announced by health minister Bairbre de Brun, followed a consultation exercise on the new structures.

The abolition of fundholding had been delayed from last April when GPs in the province refused to accept its demise.

However, the timetable for implementing the new groups, and their funding, have been criticised by the British Medical Association for not going far enough fast enough.

The groups are expected to cover populations in the range of 50150,000. Though they will be involved in decisions about the commissioning of health and social services, they will not initially hold commissioning budgets.

Ms de Brun said: 'I want them to start work quickly and will expect them to take on responsibility immediately for managing budgets for some services - for example, prescribing and primary care services. I also expect them to develop the capacity to manage a delegated budget for commissioning some services by April 2003.'

Northern Ireland BMA GP committee chair Dr Brian Patterson said it was 'concerning' that the minister had ignored the BMA's view that the proposed groups 'should have devolved budgets for commissioning services at the very outset of their formation'. He also said the proposal 'to use the money saved from GP fundholding to support the management costs of the new LHSCGs and shore up frontline primary care services, shows a gross lack of understanding in terms of what will be required in terms of resources'.

The existing eight primary care commissioning group pilots will continue until they are superseded by the new arrangements.