NHS pays for patients' energy bills in winter pilot to cut hospital admissions

The temperature display on an electric heater in a flat - Ina Fassbender/Getty Images
The temperature display on an electric heater in a flat - Ina Fassbender/Getty Images

Patients' winter energy bills are being paid for by the taxpayer in a bid to cut hospital admissions.

Anyone on a low income who suffers from health conditions that could be exacerbated by living in a cold house could be eligible for the payments as part of a new "warm home prescription scheme".

The scheme, which is currently being piloted in Gloucestershire, Aberdeenshire and Tees Valley, will see GPs and NHS officials contact patients who qualify and invite them to join.

It aims to save the NHS money by taking pre-emptive action to keep people out of hospital and away from doctors by helping them to heat their homes during the winter months.

Stuart Brennan from Energy Systems Catapult, the company that is running the pilot, told The Telegraph: "The whole point of the scale up this winter is to determine whether it is more cost effective to keep people out of hospital, and if it's cheaper, it's a bit of a no brainer.

"If people are warm at home they are not dying in hospital and it is costing the taxpayer less. That is what we are trying to prove this winter.

"We are hoping that by the end of this winter we should be able to determine whether it is a cost effective approach and whether we should expand to more areas."

The initiative was first piloted by Gloucestershire NHS last winter, with the local clinical commissioning group funding energy bills of 28 people’s homes.

This year, Gloucestershire has secured funding from the Government’s household support fund to roll the scheme out to 150 homes, with a further 1000 houses in Aberdeenshire and Tees Valley funded by BP’s social impact fund.

In Gloucestershire, people must be diagnosed with chronic lung conditions such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and bronchiectasis. They also must be either under 60 and in receipt of free NHS prescriptions, or over 60 and struggling to pay their heating bill.

'More proactive'

Dr Hein Le Roux, from the NHS in Gloucestershire, said the scheme "allows us to be more proactive in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our county".

He added: "We want to stop people from becoming unwell and help them to stay healthy at home in housing that is safe and warm."

According to Energy Systems Catapult research, living in cold homes puts millions with health conditions at risk of real harm.

They said it costs the NHS over £860 million each year and causes 10,000 deaths every winter, adding that it is likely to become an even bigger challenge this year as energy prices rise and families struggle to pay bills.

The scheme uses NHS clinical data to identify which patients struggle with health conditions that are made worse by living in cold homes. This is cross referenced with data from the Office for National Statistics to work out whether these patients live in deprived areas. People who meet both sets of criteria are sent a letter inviting them to join the pilot.

An energy advisor is then sent round to the homes of patients who express an interest and they assess how much it would cost to heat their home to an appropriate level for the winter period. The money is added to their energy account.

'The home has become a source of illness'

The British Medical Association (BMA) said that in England last year there were 63,000 excess winter deaths, with a fifth contributable to cold homes.

They added that respiratory illnesses are more than twice as high in children who live in cold, damp homes, and the NHS spends at least £2.5 billion per year treating illnesses caused by such housing.

"It is unconscionable that the home has become a source of illness for so many in the UK," said Prof David Strain, the chair of the BMA’s board of science.

"These illnesses are preventable. This trial is a targeted attempt to help some at-risk patients, but in the long term politicians must address the poor quality of UK housing stock, the levels of poverty both in and out of work that prevent people from heating their homes, and cuts to housing services that make the economically vulnerable more vulnerable still.

"There needs to be long-term commitment to invest in the population’s health to stop us getting sicker."