PATIENTS suffering severe mental illness were sent to an exclusive private hospital for treatment after a more than a third of NHS beds were axed, the Daily Echo can reveal.

More than £60,000 was spent on treating patients at the private Priory because all the health service beds available were full.

The private hospital at Marchwood is best known for treating celebrities.

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, (SHFT), which runs mental health services, paid £66,548 for 127 days of care at The Priory in October. This is equal to £524 per patient per day.

The NHS trust also opened “contingency beds” in its own mental health units to cope with demand in August and September. The bed shortages come after the trust closed 58 beds, including 24 at Woodhaven in Calmore – a move fiercely opposed by New Forest East MP Dr Julian Lewis, patients and relatives.

The Tory MP feared lives could be at risk under plans to reduce acute mental health beds across the county from 165 in January 2012 to 107 last July. However, health bosses insisted most patients want to be cared for at home and promised no patient in need of a hospital bed would be denied one.

As previously reported, the trust aimed to save £4.8m over three years, £1.5m of which would be ploughed into strengthening “hospital at home” treatment.

Dr Lewis described figures showing no spare NHS beds as “disturbing.”

He said: “Closing 58 beds was bound to have a huge impact and it now seems doubtful if any money will be saved given the costs of putting people in private hospital beds.”

The trust is due to present bed occupancy figures for October, November and December to the county council’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee later this month.

Data obtained by the Daily Echo shows up to seven NHS contingency beds were brought into use last August and six at The Priory in October.

In a statement the trust said: “The demand on, and availability of beds can fluctuate for many reasons, and so we have procedures in place to make sure an acute mental health bed will always be made available for anybody who needs one.

“These plans include the use of contingency beds that can be made available within our units, and having access to beds in other organisations, including local NHS trusts and the private sector. This is standard practice and not an emergency measure.