Mystery shoppers are being used to check on whether GP receptionists in Milton Keynes are denying homeless people access to healthcare services.
Volunteers trained by NHS watchdogs at Healthwatch MK have been pretending to be without an address in a bid to check up on whether homeless and others are being denied the chance to see a GP.
Alan Hancock, the Healthwatch representative on MK Council’s Health and Adult Social Care Scrutiny Committee, said the organisation has produced a Right to Healthcare card that has been distributed to homeless people around the city.
“It is important to know which surgeries are not accepting homeless people,” Mr Hancock told Tuesday evening’s scrutiny meeting. “Most surgeries are very helpful but certain of them are turning people away because it is against policy.”
Healthwatch is due to produce its full findings in March, but one surgery was singled out for praise. Dr Ade Buluro, at Brooklands Health Centre, provides health outreach services for homeless people.
But Mr Hancock said Brooklands is not the easiest place to get to. “If you cannot afford public transport, it is a long way to walk to from Bletchley.”
The importance of access to healthcare was reinforced by a report to the scrutiny committee which said the average life expectancy of the long term homeless is as low as 47 years of age. The average age lifespan of someone in the general population is 30 years longer.
The committee also heard that rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg. At the last count, in January, there were 11 people on the streets of Central Milton Keynes, down from 25 in October last year.
On top of that there are 96 people in temporary accommodation who would otherwise be homeless. Then there are some 650 more people in temporary accommodation, and an unknown number of people who are sofa-surfing with friends and family.
Cllr Elaine Wales (Lab, Bletchley Park) laid the responsibility for a recent rises in people in temporary accommodation at the door of “unscrupulous landlords”, high rents, and short term leases.
Victoria Collins, the council’s acting director of social services, said a team of people have been working with rough sleepers. “Our success in moving people from the streets into accommodation has been very good.”
But Cllr Jenni Ferrans (Lib Dem, Monkston), who chairs the Community and Housing Scrutiny Committee, said progress on the health agenda for homeless people had been “a bit slow”
“We have been slow in stopping GPs from turning people away,” she said. “There will be a lot of people falling through. We must get the message out to GPs.”
And Cllr Paul Williams (Lab, Central MK) said: “I do not see much evidence that we have moved forward. I am glad though that the right to healthcare card has moved forward.”
Cllr Alice Jenkins (Con, Danesborough and Walton), who chairs the scrutiny committee, said: “There has obviously been some progress but it’s slow.”
The committee agreed to running a health needs audit for homeless people and review why there has been a recent spike up in the number of people in temporary accommodation. They are also supporting the need for GPs to register homeless people at their surgeries.