DAVID Cameron ducked a challenge to defend a “devastating” cut to health funding across the region that could reach £170m a year.

NHS chiefs are planning to strip the money from the North-East and North Yorkshire by switching cash from poorer areas to those with more pensioners.

They argue the “fair shares formula” – first proposed a year ago, but dropped after protests - will better reflect the higher costs of caring for an ageing population.

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But the effect will be to slash up to £170m of funding from new GP-led ‘clinical commissioning groups’ (CCGs), which buy treatment for patients.

If the formula had been applied this year, Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield CCG would have lost £17.67m – or almost one in every £20 it receives.

The losses would have been even higher in other parts of the North-East, in Gateshead (down 8.2 per cent), South Tyneside (9.4 per cent) and Sunderland (11.4 per cent).

The formula would also have penalised CCGs in North Yorkshire, in Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby (down 4.5 per cent) and Scarborough and Ryedale (4.6 per cent) Health professionals in the North-East have described the shake-up as “very worrying” – warning of “significant cuts in services for patients” if it goes ahead.

But, quizzed during prime minister’s questions yesterday, Mr Cameron ducked the controversy of the new funding formula entirely.

Instead, he pointed to the current financial year, saying: “This year’s funding for the North-East clinical commissioning group is going up by £170m, a 2.3 per cent increase.

“That is what is happening under this Government. Of course, under Labour’s plans health spending would be cut.

“That is the Labour view. We do not agree with that and that is why we are spending more money, including in the North-East.”

The controversy was raised by Nick Brown, the Newcastle East MP, who said the projected annual loss across the North-East and Cumbria was £230m.

Speaking afterwards, the Labour MP said: “The prime minister’s response was a very bad sign indeed.

“They backed off attempting this a year ago, in response to protests by MPs, but now they are having another go – despite the outrage from the medical profession.

“This would be very, very cruel indeed for the North-East. It would have a devastating effect on healthcare and large number of services would have to close.”

A spokeswoman for NHS England said the new formula had been put forward by the independent Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation’s (ACRA).

It was currently out to consultation, ahead of final proposals to be published in December and implementation from next April.

However, the spokeswoman added: “Any new formula will be phased in over a couple of years, to give clinical commissioning groups time to plan the changes necessary.”

The projections show a huge leap in funding in Mr Cameron’s own area of Oxfordshire (£39.52m), as well as in Dorset (£67.84m), West Sussex (£56.05m) and West Kent (£39.83m).