Harris tackled on failures as 90 beds lying idle while 516 patients left on trolleys
Around 90 beds were lying idle in hospitals across the country yesterday as the trolley crisis forced hundreds of patients to endure more gruelling delays in emergency departments.
Health Minister Simon Harris disclosed the number of closed beds - due to lack of staff - at the Oireachtas Health Committee, where he was tackled on the failures of the health service, including the suffering of patients on waiting lists.
He was speaking as 516 patients were on trolleys, including 45 in Cork University Hospital.
Committee members described the testimony of public patients in need of surgery, as portrayed on the recent 'RTÉ Investigates' programme, as "shameful" and accused the minister and HSE chief Tony O'Brien of only responding with action plans on foot of the outcry which followed.
Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay South Kate O'Connell told Mr O'Brien, who was also before the committee, that the pain and suffering of young scoliosis patients, who featured on the programme, happened "under your watch."
She said it put a question mark over his ability to do his job.
The minister, who earlier this week had to deny he "wanted out of Health" following a remark by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan on Fine Gael's WhatsApp group chat, repeated that this year each hospital group has to develop a strategic plan to improve efficiency.
He said better co-operation could see patients, who are referred to a consultant in one hospital, transferred to another for surgery or appointment to make use of spare capacity. The HSE is working on a specific plan for scoliosis patients and this would be ready at the end of the month.
He said he acknowledged the "distress for patients and their families, and the impact on staff caused by overcrowded emergency departments".
Asked about the delayed opening of the new emergency department of University Hospital Limerick, one of the worst-hit hospitals, he was unable to give a commitment that it would be accepting patients by May as planned, but said he was working to have it operational when "it is ready".
Mr O'Brien said that the number of delayed discharges - patients who no longer need hospital care but need suitable step-down care - had reduced from 619 to 436 over the winter.
He said that it was "fully acknowledged" that waiting lists in certain specialities including ophthalmology, ENT, orthopaedics, urology and general surgery had seen significant increases in the number of patients waiting for treatment.
"It must be noted that both the challenge of availability of consultants in these specialities as well as hospital capacity have contributed to this increase," he said.
Asked about the progress in talks to make the drug Orkambi available to cystic fibrosis sufferers, the minister said he expected a decision would be made in the coming weeks.
The matter has yet to go before the HSE executive committee and there is a likelihood that the ultimate decision on funding could be made at Government level.
Promised legislation to reduce the prescription charge for medical card holders over 70 is imminent, Mr Harris told the committee.