AS someone with chronic health problems, the prospect of another layer of bureaucracy to battle through before I can access specialist care is worrying.

The GP referral management system CASPeR (Clinical Assessment and Peer Review System) was rolled out in Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton this week.

CASPeR will require GPs to submit the majority of their referrals to a third party for approval in a move critics say could delay healthcare and prove costly to an already stretched NHS.

Similar schemes have already been introduced across the country, with private companies paid to run some of them.

CASPeR will be delivered by HASH (Hartlepool and Stockton Health Ltd), a federation of GPs with North-East MP and GP Paul Williams as director.

Dr Williams insists that the aim of the federation is to snatch contracts from the likes of profit-making companies such as Virgin Care and plunge any resulting income back into the NHS.

Time (and timely scrutiny of accounts in months to come) will tell whether or not HASH achieves its aim, but in theory I welcome any move that blocks the creeping privatisation of our healthcare system and prevents the likes of Virgin Care from moving onto NHS territory and profiting from it – I hope Dr Williams and his team are as good as their word in this respect.

What truly concerns me, as one of the many disabled people who already struggle to access the right level of medical care, is what the impact of this scheme will be for patients and our GP practices.

The CCGs involved say that the system will reduce pressure on hospitals, that it has a cost benefit and that it will reduce unnecessary referrals.

In my experience GPs, time-stretched though they may be, are necessarily cautious and they are careful when it comes to referring patients to hospitals, consultants or specialists.

No GP can be an expert in every condition that presents itself to them, but judging from those I’ve met as a patient, they do not act hastily or without thought.

In fact, referrals to consultants and specialists are frequently difficult to come by, especially for those of us with relatively rare or misunderstood conditions who rely more heavily on the NHS than most.

An extra level of bureaucracy for our GPs to wade through to get their patients the treatment they feel is necessary will almost certainly cost practices time and money they can ill afford.

It undoubtedly represents pressure GPs do not need and some must feel that their expertise is being undermined, especially considering those assessing their referrals may have less experience than they do.

Critics have raised a number of concerns about referral management systems, not least in relation to the potential impact on patients whose requests for specialist care could be sent back to their GPs.

Those implementing this system in our region must expect close scrutiny as it progresses, should expect to be held to account and should offer absolute transparency - especially in relation to the costs (currently shrouded in secrecy) of rolling out a scheme that many, including medical professionals and politicians, believe is unnecessary.