The top official in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has admitted patients in Northern Ireland receive an inferior service compared to the rest of the UK — even before the impending cuts.
Permanent Secretary Andrew McCormick said ring-fencing the DHSSPS budget will not address the disparity but will stop the situation from getting even worse.
DHSSPS officials also told the Stormont health committee yesterday that failure to ring-fence the health budget will lead to inappropriate hospital admissions.
They were responding to the concerns of committee member Dr Kieran Deeny, who asked for details of the likely impact on community health services if the DHSSPS budget is not ring-fenced.
He said he worries that if Northern Ireland NHS standards slip below the rest of the UK, health professionals may choose to work elsewhere.
Mr McCormick said: “It’s not a matter of falling behind, we are already behind and the risk is of falling much further behind. We are not providing the same standard of care already in Northern Ireland as elsewhere in the UK.
“Elective care is a good example of this. In England, there is an 18-week timetable from a GP referral to completion of inpatient or day-case treatment. Gordon Brown was so committed to that as a target that he wanted patients who would not be seen within that time to be allowed to be seen privately.
“The best we got was for the first outpatient appointment to be within nine weeks of referral and inpatient treatment to be within 13 weeks. The closest we got to achieving that was in 2008/09.
“Since then, partly because of funding deficiencies, we have slipped back and figures in June showed there were 29,000 people waiting more than nine weeks. We’re already behind. If there’s no protection for health and social care we will fall significantly further behind.”
The Executive has not yet decided on whether to ring-fence the DHSSPS budget and yesterday, DUP MLA Alex Easton asked officials to provide a list of services which are regarded as frontline.
He said: “If you want me to help you, and I really honestly want to, then I need to know exactly what you regard as frontline services. It’s not good enough for you to say frontline services will be affected, I need to know exactly what they are.”