You're not going to cut hospital waiting lists that way, Dr Reilly

Niall Hunter

HEALTH Minister James Reilly has said that waiting lists will, under a new plan, eventually be eliminated.

Not the way things are going, they won't.

In fact, this plan could end up being simply more of the same old bad news -- and yet more of the same old waiting lists.

The minister says that public hospitals must have no patients waiting for more than 12 months for hospital treatment by the end of the year or else they face financial penalties.


The National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) has, for nearly a decade, been using taxpayers' money to take people off public waiting lists and have them treated in private hospitals.

It is now being told to use public, as well as private, hospitals to clear waiting lists.

Also, it will no longer routinely provide treatment for those on public waiting lists for more than three months, but will target particularly long waiting list backlogs for clearing.

The details of the new scheme are a bit confusing and raise a lot of questions.

However, it appears the bottom line is public hospitals will be urged to do more to clear their waiting lists.

The existing funding from the NTPF will be used to support the work of James Reilly's 'waiting list-busting' Special Delivery Unit.

There are two key questions. No extra funding has been provided to wave the magic wand and make waiting lists eventually disappear.

NTPF funds were barely keeping a lid on treatment waiting lists as it was.

There are around 26,000 on inpatient waiting lists now, an increase of 5,000 on January's figure.

Even Dr Reilly has admitted these numbers will get worse before they get better.

And the NTPF could do little or nothing about the 200,000 estimated to be on outpatient waiting lists.

How will simply moving around the money it already has and calling this a new initiative make any real difference to waiting lists?

The second question is not so much a question as a figure -- a big one. One billion euro.

That's how much has been cut from the HSE's budget. Severe cuts are being imposed.


The HSE has called a halt to filling any vacant posts, as it says it simply does not have the money to fill them.

It has started cutting agency staff as it says it cannot afford to continue to pay for them all.

Many of these staff were plugging gaps in frontline services created by the existing recruitment freeze imposed in 2009.

Hospitals running up big deficits as they struggle to cope with increasing demands will be forced to cut more beds.

There are already 1,900 acute and long-stay beds closed in the system.

We must, however, live in eternal hope. It's about all we've got at this stage.

Maybe the minister's promise to get hospitals to work more efficiently will help clear some of the waiting lists.

But here's the real bad news. Most health experts will tell you that you can streamline systems all you like, but without extra resources you will not make a major impact on waiting lists.


The problem with Dr Reilly's plan is that a health system currently on its knees is being asked to make a big effort with no extra money to take thousands of patients off waiting lists.

It's a big ask.

But God loves a trier, as they probably said about the guy who decided to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

So we must wish Dr Reilly well and hope he avoids the icebergs ahead.

Niall Hunter is Editor of