Northern Ireland’s struggling health service needs £31m to help treat thousands of patients waiting longer than a year for appointments, the health minister has said.
Michelle O’Neill said she is confident the money can be secured, despite the political crisis at Stormont and the fact no budget has been agreed.
Currently an estimated 40,000 people are waiting more that 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment. Around 8,000 patients are waiting longer than a year for day care inpatient treatment.
Outlining her six-point ‘Elective Care Plan’ on how to help transform health and social care services in the province, Mrs O’Neill said £31m would ensure that by March 2018, nobody would be waiting longer than 52 weeks for first outpatient appointments or day care inpatient treatment.
She insisted that the plan for reforming the system, which is in response to a report by Professor Rafael Bengoa, was not hypothetical, even though there is uncertainty over the health budget.
Mrs O’Neill added: “Waiting lists are totally unacceptable to me. We need to deal with the waiting list backlog and long-term transformation (of the health service).
“There is no point continually doing more of the same in delivering elective care to outpatients. Frontline staff in the HSC are working harder than ever, but we are still not meeting the demand for services. We need to do it better, smarter, and in a way that will be sustainable.”
However, Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson has accused the Sinn Fein health minister of “cruelly engaging in pre-election stunts”.
The UUP Assembly candidate added: “Michelle O’Neill is right to say that when she took up office last May lengthy waiting times were a major problem. Yet under her watch those delays have only worsened.
“She can state as often as she likes that she is concerned about them, but the unavoidable reality is that for the last eight months she has failed to do anything about them.”
Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw has questioned where the funding for the minister’s plan to tackle waiting lists will come from, due to the lack of an Executive budget for 2017/18.
She added: “We have heard similar claims before the last election about money being made available to tackle problems in the health sector, finances which did not subsequently appear.”
North Belfast DUP Assembly candidate Paula Bradley welcomed the minister’s plan to tackle waiting lists, but added: “They (the proposals) are already impacted by the failure of the Finance Minister to bring forward budget proposals to the Executive and by Sinn Fein’s decision to bring down the Assembly and force an election.
“This has an inevitable impact upon patients.”