Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was surprised' to learn the scale of Hertfordshire's NHS debts at a meeting at the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The meeting, which was also attended by Hertsmere MP James Clappison and county councillors, focused on Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Strategic Health Authority's (SHA) £48 million deficit the total debt of health bodies which operate under the SHA, such as Primary Care Trusts.

Hertsmere PCT is currently £1.6 million in the red.

Mr Clappison said: "Patricia Hewitt seemed very surprised when we told her the extent of the problem. She could not promise any immediate help but said she would have a look at it.

"We need help and flexibility, or patient care will suffer. If this is dealt with as a purely financial exercise in terms of simply reducing deficit, then it is inevitable that it is going to impact on the health care for patients. Some patients will not get the best possible care."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "We recognise the seriousness of the financial position and are in close dialogue with the SHA to agree plans to minimise the impact on the current year. We have been assured that all this year's targets and promises will be met so that the people of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire will not experience poorer care and quality of care than the rest of the country."

Hertfordshire County Council will scrutinise the SHA financial recovery plans, and will assess their impact on health services in the county.

Councillor Michael Downing, chair of the health scrutiny committee, said: "The committee shares the public's concerns about the potential impact of the recovery plans, therefore we will be scrutinising it in detail in an attempt to ensure that the quality of healthcare in Hertfordshire is maintained."

The committee will discuss the situation at its next meeting in County Hall, Hertford, on Wednesday next week.