Wednesday 23 January 2019

Patients face more misery as Harris drops proposal to cut waiting lists to 15 months

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Frank McGrath
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Frank McGrath
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

A pledge to have no public patient waiting more than 15 months for surgery or a specialist appointment by October has been abandoned by Health Minister Simon Harris.

A long-awaited HSE waiting list plan, published yesterday, commits to just "reducing" the numbers facing this gruelling wait for surgery by 29,000 -although 38,991 will be in the queue.

The plan for outpatient waiting lists envisages that 95,000 patients - fewer than half those waiting more than 15 months to see a specialist - will have gotten an appointment by October.

Pressure has escalated with around 1,200 patients a week joining outpatient lists this year.

A separate plan for children in need of spinal surgery for scoliosis sets a target to have no young patient waiting more than four months for the procedure at the end of the year. The adult and child patients in need of surgery will be treated in public hospitals and in private hospitals under a €15m outsourcing initiative. The most recent waiting list figures show that more than 665,000 people are in some form of waiting list.

The minister said: "There is no doubt our public hospital system is challenged in meeting growing demand for care."

The more modest waiting list targets come as the Oireachtas committee on the Future of Healthcare published its 10-year plan to deliver a one-tier health service.

At the heart of the plan is the transfer of more care away from the hospitals to the community.

However, question marks remain over how its ambitious promises will be funded and how the €5.8bn price tag will be paid for. The delivery could mean higher taxes.

The report, launched by the committee chaired by Social Democrat TD Róisín Shortall, promises to phase in free GP care for all, abolish the overnight €80 hospital charge, reduce the prescription levy from €2.50 to 50c and get rid of the A&E €100 fee in eight years.

It also plans to end queue jumping by private patients in public hospitals over five years and confine insured patients to private hospitals.

And it sets waiting list targets of no more than 12 weeks for surgery and 10 weeks for an outpatient appointment. The target is less than 10 days for a diagnostic test. It needs €3bn of transitional funding over six years.

Asked where the money will be found, Deputy Shortall said that it is a "political matter" for the Government of the day.

They had not quantified savings but the final bill "will be lower than the projected €5.8bn".

She said: "I have my views and other committee members have their views. I feel there is a strong argument for earmarking a portion of the Universal Social Charge. It is a progressive tax.

"Other people were talking about a supplement to the PRSI. Others spoke of a windfall tax. We are about to sell a portion to AIB. The committee did not have agreement on that. We are all coming from different perspectives."

The plan, which is likely to be given to an implementation office to see through, received mixed reaction.

The Irish Medical Organisation said the plan to introduce free GP care over five years is unrealistic as there are not enough doctors.

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association, whose members stand to lose out on private practice in public hospitals, said it did not make sense not to charge insured patients, many of whom are admitted through the emergency department.

Simon Nugent, of the Irish Private Hospitals Association, said that while he welcomed the plan to transfer care of private patients to private hospitals, it risked being delayed by yet another impact study at a time when the needs of public waiting list patients are urgent.

The National Association of General Practitioners warned that free GP care could only be considered when capacity is addressed, resources are provided and a new contract is agreed with general practice .

The Oireachtas committee plan includes proposals for new legislation to also increase the amount of home care supports in the first five years.

The report believes savings can be made as an improved public hospital system will lead to more abandoning health insurance. This will lead to saving on tax relief for the Exchequer.

Irish Independent

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