Guarantees on patient safety and access are being sought after councillors in South Tyneside and Sunderland scrutinised plans to change health and medical services.
Faced with unprecedented financial and recruitment challenges, South Tyneside and Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Groups launched a large scale public consultation on proposals to revise the way services are delivered.
The Joint Health Scrutiny Committee, made up of Members from both Sunderland and South Tyneside, have investigated the proposals to seek assurances that local residents will not be adversely affected by the plans. This scrutiny has continued beyond the public consultation deadline and has involved 13 formal meetings and the consideration of evidence from numerous parties including medical staff, clinical experts, Healthwatch and representatives of the Save South Tyneside Hospital campaign.
Depending on the outcome of the decision, the Committee can decide to refer the matter to the Secretary of State for Health.
The joint committee, which has seven members from each council, is jointly chaired by South Tyneside's Councillor Rob Dix and Sunderland's Councillor Norma Wright.
Councillor Dix said: "On such an emotive subject as our local hospital services, it would have been all too easy to provide a knee-jerk response to these proposals.
"However, we have a duty of care to our residents and it is only by taking the time to consider these proposals in detail that we feel we can now give a comprehensive, robust and informed view of these proposals and the concerns that we have."
Cllr Wright said: "There are serious concerns about what is happening to our health services in Sunderland and South Tyneside. There are major questions on how plans for removing and ending some services in South Tyneside are going to put more strain on already stretched services in Sunderland.
"The public knows well about the pressures that the NHS is under, but this still makes it difficult to accept what has been proposed.
"These issues and concerns include the impact not just on the public, but also on staffing and resources. Our scrutiny of the health consultation and decision-making process has been extremely thorough and highlights some key points for the NHS.
"If we are to have a truly responsive and patient-focussed NHS services in Sunderland and South Tyneside then decision-makers at the health trust need to sit up and listen to what the public and staff have told them.
"We now need to hear more and have reassurances from the NHS on how concerns raised through our scrutiny will be addressed and satisfactorily resolved."
The committee's formal response to the Path to Excellence proposals is below:
Stroke care services - The Committee is calling for evidence to be considered by decision-makers to confirm that stroke services will be improved by combining all acute stroke care at Sunderland Royal Hospital.
Maternity - Concerns remain over the proposed removal of a consultant-led maternity unit and special care baby unit at South Tyneside Hospital. There are particular worries about the ability of Sunderland, and other neighbouring hospitals, to deal with the additional number of cases, as well as travel and transport issues.
Paediatric - The absence of a 24/7 paediatric emergency department at South Tyneside Hospital is a source of concern. Councillors are calling for decision-makers to ensure that patient safety is not compromised by these proposed changes.
In their final response, committee members also express their concerns over travel issues. More than a third of households in South Tyneside do not have a car which will make accessing services in Sunderland more difficult. As a result, they have raised the idea of a dedicated bus service between the two hospitals as well as a monthly parking scheme for frequent visitors to the hospital.
Councillors are also concerned by evidence from hospital staff that they felt they had not been involved in the planning and development of the Path to Excellence proposals, despite assurances to the contrary by the CCGs.
Councillor Dix added: "We believe failure to involve staff in the development of these proposals was a missed opportunity that could have provided reality checks from operational staff on the ground.
"There also remain serious concerns about the consultation as a whole. Much of the information presented by the South Tyneside and Sunderland Healthcare Group, CCGs and North East Commissioning Support was complex, confusing and lacked clarity.
"As councillors, our duty is to scrutinise these proposals and to hold the CCGs to account. We would encourage decision-makers to listen to the feedback given by patients and local people whose views should be at the very heart of the decision-making process."
Since the public consultation ended in October, the CCGs have produced a consultation feedback report which has been considered by the Joint Health Scrutiny Committee. The Committee's response will be considered by the CCG governing bodies when making their final decisions on the proposals.