Confidence in the state of the National Health Service's finances is fading fast as it heads for a financial crisis in 2015/16, was the key message from think-tank The King's Fund latest quarterly report.
Despite an improvement over the last quarter, the NHS provider sector still remains on track to post a deficit for the first time since 2006/7, with one in eight trusts and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) likely failing to keep within their budgets for the financial year just closed, it said.
Of particular concern, just 40% of finance directors in hospitals and other providers are confident of balancing the books in the 2014/15, but for the following financial year in 2015/16 the figure is much less at just 16%.
The seed of doubt over financial balance seems to stem from the looming birth of the £3.8 billion Better Care Fund, under which an extra £1.9 billion will be siphoned from the NHS to support joint working between health and social care from April next year.
According to The King's Fund, while NHS England has estimated that hospitals will have to cut emergency admissions by 15% to compensate for this loss, this is considered very unlikely by almost 70% of hospital finance directors responding to its survey.
On the plus side, the quarterly figures show that despite financial struggles "the NHS continues to hold up well against key performance indicators", with the number of patients waiting longer than four hours in A&E remaining within the government's 5% target and healthcare acquired infections remaining at historic lows.
"The NHS has coped well during the winter and avoided the A&E crisis that was so widely predicted," but "there is a growing recognition that the NHS will face a financial crisis in 2015/16, if not before," said Richard Murray, Director of Policy at the think.
"It is now certain that the next government will need to find more funding for the NHS or accept significant cuts to services," he stressed.