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Edwin Poots faces cuts probe: Audit Office asked to examine £140m shortfall claims

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's public spending watchdog has been asked to examine DUP Minister Edwin Poots' claims of a £140m shortfall in funding for the health service.

The SDLP has requested an "urgent" investigation following the Health Minister's dire warnings of budget cuts, including reductions in locum and agency doctors and nurses, less money for drug treatments of cancer, arthritis and MS and pay restraint for health care staff.

Ahead of Mr Poots' face-to-face session on Wednesday with the Assembly committee, which monitors his department, the SDLP's health spokesman Fearghal McKinney warned of the potential for "many tens of millions of pounds" to be wasted in the NHS.

He has written to Kieran Donnelly, the head of the NI Audit Office (NIAO), stating that his party has not had a satisfactory explanation of the growing strains in the health service in recent years.

His request came as it emerged the Audit Office is to publish a report on private practice using publicly-funded health and social care (HSC) premises here.

Mr McKinney said there was evidence of the potential for the public purse paying twice "given the extent to which hospitals are cancelling huge amounts of appointments and then reaching to the private sector to ease queues."

Mr Poots also came under fire recently from his DUP colleague Finance Minister Simon Hamilton for "poor management" of the health budget with a £13m 'overspend' in the last quarter.

NIAO has said in the past six years, health trusts have recovered £30m from patients receiving private treatment on HSC premises.

"While this level of revenue may be minor in terms of the overall healthcare budget of over £4 billion, it is essential that HSC Trusts can demonstrate that their internal control arrangements are recovering monies due on a timely basis, particularly during a period of financial constraint.

"Although public and private healthcare systems can operate in parallel, particular care must be taken to ensure that private healthcare is never subsidised by the public purse," the NIAO has said.

The new inquiry is designed to ensure all private patients treated on HSC premises are identified; charges for all treatments result in recovery of full costs; and income is collected in full and in a timely manner follows an earlier investigation eight years ago.

Mr McKinney said: "Added together there is potential for many tens of millions of pounds to be wasted in the health service".

Background

Health Minister Edwin Poots has warned that likely decisions flowing from a £140m gap in the health budget are too serious to be taken by a single minister.

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has made clear it would veto health cuts proposals on the Executive but has also admitted that the health service could do with additional funding.

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