Saturday 21 October 2017

Public patients on waiting lists may be denied 'unfair jump in the queue'

Committee chair: Social Democrat Róisín Shortall Picture: Steve Humphreys
Committee chair: Social Democrat Róisín Shortall Picture: Steve Humphreys

Eilish O'Regan and Niall O'Connor

Desperate public patients stuck on waiting lists who pay for appointments to see specialists may be stopped from jumping hospital queues in this fashion.

Growing numbers of patients, who do not have private health insurance, face waiting times of one to two years to see a specialist in a public outpatient clinic.

They are opting instead to fast-track their care by paying to see a specialist privately - and then rejoining the public hospital system.

But a radical proposal under consideration by the Dáil Committee on the Future of Healthcare would stop this practice. This committee is due to produce a final report at the end of the month, charting the way forward for the health service in the next decade.

It views the way these patients "jump back" into the public system as "unfair".

The committee, chaired by Social Democrat TD Róisín Shortall, is looking at whether this is a form of queue-jumping.

It potentially disadvantages other patients who could not afford to pay for the private consultation and have to remain on the public outpatient waiting list.

Documents produced by the committee say this is "unfair".

This queue-jumping would be seen to happen if the specialist, for instance, recommends the patient should have surgery.

The question is whether it is right that the patient be able to automatically proceed to the next stage and join the next public waiting list for an operation.

If this controversial plan is adopted, it would be a setback to public patients who are worried about symptoms and feel they cannot risk a long delay before being assessed.

It comes as the latest figures for the numbers of people waiting for an outpatient appointment nationally now stand at a staggering 466,631.

There are nearly 43,000 waiting to see a specialist for more than 18 months. Of these, 6,219 are in the queue to see an orthopaedic specialist and 4,272 are waiting at least 18 months to see an eye specialist.

The proposal comes in the wake of revelations that the committee, in its draft report, is set to recommend that tax relief for private health insurance be abolished.

This has already been ruled out by the Government for various reasons, including the public backlash.

The committee also wants all private medicine removed from public hospitals, which would mean insured patients would have to be treated only in private facilities.

The delay in seeing an eye specialist could cost some patients the loss of sight as their eye disease can deteriorate while they wait.

Glaucoma, for instance, is becoming an increasingly significant cause of preventable blindness in the western world.

Around 3pc of people over 50 in Ireland have it and the prevalence of the disease will rise by 33pc by 2021. Access to a specialist is vital.

Irish Independent

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