400,000 people on hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland - lives being lost, warns MLA
Almost 400,000 people have been left languishing on hospital waiting lists as the crisis spirals "out of control".
That is more than one in five of the population of Northern Ireland currently waiting for inpatient, outpatient treatment or diagnostic tests.
Stormont health committee member Jo-Anne Dobson warned that people were losing their lives because of the "outrageous" and "terrifying" delays in treatment and diagnosis.
This includes more than 30,000 people forced to wait over a year for a first outpatient appointment, and 3,381 for inpatient treatment.
Almost 7,000 people have been waiting more than six months for a diagnostic test.
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill admitted the long waiting times were "completely unacceptable" and said that tackling them was high on her agenda.
She also warned, however, that she would need "time, new investment and radical change" in how NHS services are delivered "to create a sustainable health service."
Despite an additional £48m being pumped into the health service in November last year in a bid to tackle the problem, waiting times continue to soar, according to the latest Department of Health statistics.
"Irrespective of the sheer scale of these figures... we must never forget that they represent 392,000 individual stories of anxiety and often unbearable agony," said Jo-Anne Dobson.
"I just spoke to an elderly gentleman who is waiting on a new hip. He was crying in pain and his wife was crying because she couldn't help him.
"The situation is beginning to get out of control. It is very worrying and shocking that the situation is deteriorating year after year.
"Targets for treatment exist because it is very widely accepted that the longer patients are forced to wait for treatment, the greater harm they may ultimately come to.
"The number of people who are waiting far longer than is medically safe has now grown to an unprecedented and terrifyingly high level.
"Now, more than ever before, the Executive needs to set aside its petty politicking on health and realise that until it gets a grip of the crisis, people will continue to come to harm.
"This sadly includes people losing their lives as a result of the delays in essential diagnostic and treatment services."
Health Minister Ms O'Neill said she wanted to get to a position where "excessive waiting times will be in the past and sustainable high-quality services, underpinned by a stable budget, will be the reality and the future going forward.
"I'm therefore disappointed that the latest waiting times statistics for April 2016 to June 2016 show a deteriorating position," she added.
"But unfortunately, this was not unexpected as the position that I inherited in May was one of continuing deterioration in waiting times.
"This is because demand continues to rise, and while there is no doubt that short-term additional funding goes some way to managing the position, it is not the entire solution."
Ms O'Neill said she recognised that change would take time. She added that she would continue to engage with Executive colleagues to secure the additional investment necessary.
Health committee member Gerry Carroll MLA, of People Before Profit Alliance, said the situation was "a clear indicator that the current two-tier health system and incremental encroachment by the private sector is not working."