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Sinn Fein's O'Neill faces stunt jibes over health funding pledge

By Allan Preston

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill has been accused of a pre-election stunt after she said funding of £31m is needed urgently to tackle hospital waiting lists - despite no Executive budget being in place.

Despite Stormont's current crisis, Ms O'Neill insisted she is confident of securing the funding - but other parties dismissed the announcement as electioneering.

At present around 40,000 patients are waiting more than one year for their first outpatient appointment, with a further 8,000 facing the same wait for day care inpatient treatment.

Announcing her plan yesterday, the Health Minister said the funding of £31m meant that by March next year neither category of patient would wait more than 52 weeks for treatment.

"There is no point continually doing more of the same in delivering elective care to outpatients," she said.

Regarding the lack of an agreed budget, she added: "I am confident this uplift will be forthcoming. I have already had detailed discussions with the Finance Minister in relation to this requirement."

Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson called the new plan a "pre-election stunt".

While welcoming the funding allocation, she said similar funding awards over the last two years - £30m in 2016/17 and £40m in 2015/16 - had failed to make a difference to waiting lists.

"The minister is right to concentrate her efforts on those patients that have been waiting longest, but it is simply shocking that the number of outpatients alone waiting over 52 weeks increased from 20,000 to 40,000 in the space of 12 months," she said.

"The minister needs to be more upfront with the public when she says by March 2018, no-one should wait more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment - it's more than twice as long as the target that existed less than a year ago."

Alliance Party Paula Bradshaw health spokesperson questioned where the money would come from.

"We have heard similar claims before the last election about money being made available to tackle problems in the health sector, finances which did not subsequently appear," she said.

"This is the real result of the DUP and Sinn Fein's arrogance and hubris towards the institutions. Without a return to power-sharing and functioning Executive, this election will come at a great cost to those suffering the most."

Paula Bradley of the DUP added: "I welcome that the minister has now put forward these proposals and we will consider them in detail.

"However, they are already impacted by the failure of the Finance Minister to bring forward budget proposals to the Executive and by Sinn Fein's decision to bring down the Assembly and force an election. This has an inevitable impact upon patients."

SDLP health spokesperson Mark H Durkan argued that an emergency health budget was needed to deal with the crisis.

"We're calling for an emergency budget to deal with the resource deficit that's leading to poor health outcomes for patients," he said.

"It is unacceptable that tens of thousands of people are waiting over a year on a first outpatient appointment.

"It's unacceptable that people with urgent cancer referrals are waiting over 62 days for a first treatment. It's unacceptable that the number of people waiting over 12 hours in A&E trebled last year.

"The minister's plan today was overdue. But no matter how frustrated we are about how long we've waited, it's nothing compared to the frustration, the anxiety and the anger felt by patients who've spent years waiting for the care they need."

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