Published: 09:00, 12 May 2014
Bosses at Canterbury's Pilgrims Hospice are standing their ground over the planned closure of the 16-bed care unit despite a growing campaign to force them to change their minds.
They claim the charity-run centre – which opened in 1982 – is "no longer fit for purpose" and the closure will save £500,000 a year.
Instead they want to expand hospice care in the community, with staff visiting patients in their own homes, nursing homes and hospitals.
But there has been a massive backlash to the announcement with an online petition calling for the unit to be saved gaining more than 14,000 signatures.
A Save Pilgrims Hospice Canterbury Facebook page has been set up and it already has more than 12,000 supporters.
Staff and volunteers are also said to be shocked at the decision, which many claim they had not been consulted on and were of only told of last week.
But today Pilgrims Hospices chief executive Steve Auty said: "The reaction to our announcement shows just how much the local community cares about Pilgrims and we can assure you that we all share that passion.
"We are touched by the many stories, we have heard this week, of people whose loved ones have died in the hospice and pleased that we have been able to provide them and their families with love and care in such difficult times.
"We also know that whilst we have been able to provide this support for many it is still only a small proportion of those who need it, with the majority (almost 90%) dying in hospital, care homes or their own home.
"So we need to be responsive to these needs and change the way in which we deliver care to ensure that, while we have enough hospice beds to serve east Kent, which we are fully committed to providing, we also provide a greater level of hospice care out into the community.
"That is the challenge, which Pilgrims is taking up – to deliver the same care that a patient would receive in a hospice bed but out to a number of locations across the community when and where it is required.
"We recognise that change can be difficult to contemplate which is why Pilgrims is setting up a series of meetings where we can fully and directly discuss with you our plans, explain why we believe they are needed, listen to your concerns and ensure that everyone has a good understanding of what has been proposed.
"We want to work with our supporters to ensure that we deliver the best care for all who need it across east Kent and are in the process of organising venues and dates for public meetings, starting the week of May 26.
But there are fears donations to the charity could fall, with reports some benefactors have even cancelled standing orders to the hospice.
"The manner in which this news was broken in my view leaves much to be desired. To put it mildly I was totally shocked, amazed and filled with sadness at this announcement..." - fundraiser David Denne
David Denne, who has helped raised funds for the hospice for 17 years and was chairman of its fund raising committee, called the decision "disastrous".
He said: "The manner in which this news was broken in my view leaves much to be desired. To put it mildly I was totally shocked, amazed and filled with sadness at this announcement.
"To cease to offer such well funded services at our hospice is nothing other than disastrous.
"For over 30 years our hospice has built a truly wonderful service and is held with such loving memories of lost ones by very many local families, with nothing but warm praise to all the medical staff.
"Many companies have donated large sums of money over the years, let alone all individuals who have supported it through sponsored events.
"It really feels that the carpet has been pulled from under our feet and that all those who have worked so hard particularly over this period of time, badly let down."
Hospice volunteer Keren Tattersall said volunteers were "absolutely horrified" by the announcement and planning to arrange a public meeting.
She added: "I accept that increasing provision of hospice at home teams and the spreading of day care services beyond the hospice is admirable. This will require funding - but not at the expense of our local inpatient facility.
"But I have heard that some people are so appalled they have even cancelled their standing orders to the hospice and others have said they will not now be leaving money in their wills."
The decision to close the unit is all the more baffling because work is underway on a £260,000 refurbishment of the building, following a grant from the Department of Health.
The charity says it will no longer provide 16 inpatient beds at Canterbury from 2016, bringing to an end 32 years of the hospice providing end-of-life care to the terminally ill in the district.
But it will continue to offer day care services from Canterbury and its other purpose-built centres in Ashford and Margate will continue to operate with in-patient beds.
The unit at Canterbury will be "mothballed", but charity chief executive Steve Auty insists the site will not be sold off or abandoned but continued to be used for administration and the training of staff and outside care providers.
The charity has a monthly wage bill of £700,000 to support is three sites. But there could be some redundancies among the 65 staff who work at the Canterbury unit, most of who will be retrained and redeployed to work in the community.
Mr Auty said care will now be provided in hospitals and at home, ensuring a more "expert and responsive service for more patients".
They also claim they can now re-deploy more staff into the "heart of the communities in east Kent".
Mr Auty said: "This is a decision we have not taken lightly because we know the emotional attachment the Canterbury site has with local people.
"But of our three sites, Canterbury is the oldest and would need considerable investment in the future.
"There are savings by closing it but that has not been the driving force behind the decision and if there are any compulsory redundancies, they would only be in single figures.
"We have considered our future with all our staff, who we know are saddened by it too. But hospice care is not about buildings and we believe we can reach more people who need us out in the community."
But the decision to shut the hospice has angered those who recognise the important role it has played in the lives of many across the district.
Anne Booth wrote on Twitter: "Surely we can't let that happen? It is so important - and we've hardly had it any time. Our healthcare is in a mess."
Andy Dawkins said on Facebook: “Very sad news. Most of us sadly have a connection with the Canterbury hospice. A truly remarkable place run by fantastic and caring staff."
And referring to the closure of Kent and Canterbury's birthing unit in 2012, Lettie Austen added: "Does this mean that we now not only cannot be born in Canterbury, but cannot die here too?"
Darren Legge, the son of late panto legend Dave Lee, said: "What a loss."
Canterbury was the founding hospice of the charity, with two others later opening in Ashford and Margate, which will not be affected by the changes.
Together, the three sites care for 2,300 people each year and are supported by almost 2,000 volunteers.
The NHS contributes just a quarter of the £10.5 million funding needed to run the charity every year, with the rest raised through charity shops, a weekly lottery and a series of fundraising events.
Hundreds of trustees, staff and volunteers met yesterday in Canterbury, Ashford and Thanet to discuss the "new strategy" for the hospice - known as the Future Hospice Programme.
Mr Auty said: "We want to make Pilgrims Hospice more responsive, equitable and accessible, and to focus on our core responsibility of providing expert palliative and end of life care.
"By 2016 we aim to provide more of our care in the community and at bedsides in hospital and care homes.
"We are already showing that this strategy works in practice, and are proud of our newest outreach centre opening in Folkestone on Friday, May 9."
News of the closure comes just months after the Canterbury hospice started a £260,000 refurbishment project and days after it raised almost £100,000 through a charity bike ride in the city.
After its closure to inpatients, the building will be used to train the charity’s staff and volunteers, as well as health and social care professionals across east Kent.
Video: Pilgrims Hospice marks its 30th anniversary in June 2012
Charity bosses say they will be working more closely with other providers of inpatient care, including the East Kent University Hospitals Foundation Trust.
Chairman Dr Richard Morey said: "These are exciting changes for Pilgrims Hospice, which will allow us to deliver more care in people’s homes, where many want it, while still retaining expert inpatient hospice beds.
"Together the staff, volunteers, trustees and our supporters will work to make Pilgrims Hospice fit for the future."
Medical director Dr Claire Butler is leading the team implementing the changes, which will cost £500,000 over three years.
She said: "Pilgrims Hospice has grown and adapted since its beginnings in the early 1980s and will continue to do so in new and innovative ways, aiming to serve all the people of east Kent who can benefit from our care and support."
The hospice marked its 30th anniversary with a special service at Canterbury Cathedral in June 2012.
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