Friday 21 October 2016

Next year will be the most difficult yet for health services

Published 14/10/2015 | 02:30

Picture posed
Picture posed

In the opening gambit for Budget 2016, Minister Michael Noonan promised "more doctors and nurses" as "sensible and affordable" measures. Minister Howlin hailed it as "the second budget in succession in which we are able to increase support for our public services".

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What neither ministers Noonan nor Howlin admitted was that the small additional money for health in 2016 is not enough to maintain even current levels of health services. Not to mind addressing the high levels of unmet need or going in any way towards making up for seven years of harsh austerity cuts to health.

Unmet need is most evident in the thousands of people waiting years for essential diagnosis and treatment and the 469 people on trolleys on Budget Day.

The extension of free GP care to all children under 12 years old in 2016, costed €39m, is just one in a suite of initiatives hoping to woo families before the election. It is a rare step in the right direction for a government which claims it was interested in introducing a universal healthcare system.

However, free GP care for six to 11-year-olds is dependent on "successful negotiation with doctors' representatives" - i.e., dependent on the negotiation of a new GP contract. Families should not hold their breath for this.

And, while providing all children with access to GP care without fees is a positive public health measure, if GPs can't access basic diagnostic tests for children, if children have to wait months - or years - to access essential therapies and treatment, if their families cannot afford the drugs prescribed, then this new measure is the tiniest of gestures towards meeting the health needs of all our children - especially the sickest.

Mr Howlin claimed that the health budget allocation restores the health service to pre-crisis funding levels. No matter how creative one is with the sums, Budget 2016 does not restore the health budget to 2008 spending levels - there is still at least a €1.5bn shortfall.

While the inevitable supplementary health budget of about €600m required for 2015 will be included in the 2016 baseline budget, monies allocated to health are insufficient to meet even the basic needs of our ageing, growing population.

This government claims it has not cut health spending yet, by year end, it will have spent over €1.8bn on supplementary health budgets since coming into office and has cut spending on health by at least €300 per head. And next year, due to changed European budgetary rules, there will be no supplementary budget, making 2016 one of the most difficult years yet for the health system.

If this government was serious about delivering high quality healthcare, Budget 2016 would have had much fewer tax cuts and much more investment in our public health system. Yesterday's announcements show their true colours.

Irish Independent

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