External turn-around teams of private accountants have been dispatched to 18 trusts, including nine failing PCTs, in an attempt to rein in a predicted £731 million deficit by April.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt said debt was not a problem for most trusts but where it was, the DoH would try to help without affecting services.
However, Dr Mitch Garsin, chairman of Hillingdon LMC in Middlesex, where the PCT faces a £26 million debt, said the effects of the accountants' work 'have already begun to hit us' and was concerned for patient safety.
He said that a freeze on filling district nurse vacancies meant 'vacancies are so high, there is significant danger to patients.
'The PCT plan limited what nurses could do and GPs were not willing to take on some of that work. The PCT has turned around, but it will take a long time to turn around the damage. GPs are very angry indeed.'
However, Dr Garsin believed the problems were not the fault of PCT management. 'It's due in large part to government-imposed targets,' he said.
He added that the turn-around teams sent into the PCTs were far from satisfactory: 'Hillingdon now gets a team that knows nothing about the problem. We get junior accountants who know nothing about the NHS and the blame will probably filter down to GPs.'
Dr Liz McClure, chairwoman of South Cheshire LMC, which covers Cheshire West PCT where a £15 million deficit has been forecast, said GPs were under pressure to reduce referrals.
'The danger is that risks might be taken because of pressure from the PCT,' she said. 'Patients will be at risk if this goes too far. We must have clinical input into any cuts they decide to make.'
PCTS IN DEBT
Hillingdon: £26 million
Sheffield (four PCTs): £16 million
Cheshire West: £15 million
Selby and York: £10 million
West Wiltshire: £8 million
Kennet and North Wiltshire: £6 million.