Tuesday 28 March 2017

Reilly warns of rising waiting lists as new unit begins work

Eilish O'Regan Health Correspondent

Hospital waiting lists may rise in the short term despite a major new drive to treat more patients faster, Health Minister James Reilly admitted yesterday.

He was speaking at the launch of a Special Delivery Unit which he has set up aimed at cutting the delays faced by patients needing surgery or outpatient specialist appointments.

However, the first task of the unit, which will be headed for six months by UK-trained health manager Dr Martin Connor, is to tackle waiting times in hospital A&Es.

Despite Dr Reilly saying it was a "landmark day", details of how the ambitious objective will be achieved remain vague and no new funding is available this year to drive it forward. He admitted it could take 18 months before patients saw results.

"It's not our intention that waiting lists will rise but they could in the short term. But in the long term, definitely not."

He conceded the health service was struggling financially after having €700m cut from its budget, but he said he remained convinced there are "better ways" to deliver services.

However, it was confirmed yesterday that five years after a similar unit was set up in Northern Ireland -- where Dr Martin Connor was special adviser -- waiting lists initially fell but are now spiralling out of control.

Northern health authorities stopped using private hospitals to treat long waiters last year, relying on publicly-funded hospitals. This saw another rise in waiting lists.

There are now more patients waiting for treatment in the North per head of population than in the South. The latest figures show 17,516 are waiting for inpatient procedures in the North compared to 26,028 in the South which has a greater population.

The National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) -- which has a budget of €85m this year and has already committed €45m of this to pay for private treatments for public patients -- will stop new referrals from the end of this month.

The NTPF will now be answerable to the new unit. The freeing up of its funds is aimed at allowing the unit to direct around €29m to areas which it sees as a priority.

Dr Connor could not say yesterday what his overall budget would be. He is being given €250,000 to pay his own fees and buy in expertise.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said Dr Connor, a Phd, would be paid €90,000.

Dr Reilly declined to set any specific targets for the new unit -- other than a promise that waiting lists would be dramatically reduced in three years. A more detailed plan is due in September.

Surge

It comes against a background of another surge in waiting lists this year with more than 24,000 waiting for surgical and medical procedures at a time when hospitals have over-spent their budgets by €74m.

Dr Connor said the patient would be the core of his plans but he also cautioned that the unit was no "magic bullet" and the success would depend on a team effort, involving not just hospital staff but also GPs.

He believed improvement could be made in waiting lists by working differently and doing things more smartly.

"It's not an easy ask but it's not an impossible ask," he added.

The NTPF said yesterday it looked forward to playing a part in the "revised arrangements" which were being put in place to deal with public patients on waiting lists.

Irish Independent

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