HUNDREDS of mental health patients are being referred to private hospitals due to a shortage of NHS beds in Lancashire.

The shock figures, which show Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust shelled out more than £5million to private hospitals in the last two years, came after the trust slashed its provision of inpatient beds by about a third.

The data was obtained by the Lancashire Telegraph through Freedom of Information laws and raised serious concerns from health campaigners.

There were 251 patients sent to private facilities in 2013/14, at a cost of £3.6million, which was up from 136 referrals the previous year (£2.1million), which represented an average spend of £15,000 per patient. All these referrals were due to a lack of available NHS beds.

Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “These figures are staggering and I think there’s something sadly wrong here. We want this cash spent on NHS beds in the community and not going into the coffers of private companies.”

The number of beds at facilities run by Lancashire Care, such as those at the Royal Blackburn and Burnley General hospitals, has dropped from 492 in 2011 to 318 last year, although there has also been a reduction in inpatient admissions over the same period, from 4,603 to 3,560.

As reported last week, the trust is planning to further reduce its inpatient units, from eight to four, which could bring more bed closures.

Julia Berry, Chorley Council’s lead member for health, said: “This is a non-sensical situation... Wards have been intentionally closed locally and yet they’re saying they don’t have the capacity. It’s outrageous that so much money has been spent on private beds.”

Most of the spending on private hospitals went to The Priory Hospital in Preston (£2.6million last year), with about £700,000 paid to Cygnet Health Care Ltd.

Lancashire Care said a number of factors had led to an increase in demand for mental health beds, including more patients with complex problems needing a longer stay.

A spokesman added: “Before seeking to place a service user in a private bed the trust would always liaise with neighbouring NHS organisations to ensure there is no other capacity locally.

“The providers the trust uses are all regulated by the Care Quality Commission to ensure a high standard of care and environment.

“The trust is working with its commissioners in relation to bed capacity in Lancashire and work is also ongoing to redesign community-based services.

"These community services focus on preventing admissions for those individuals who would normally present in crisis and have a short stay in hospital as well as facilitating early discharge for those people who have been admitted to an inpatient bed.”