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Dependence on locums driving £131m hole in health service funding, watchdog warns

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 20/01/2016

Michaela Boyle, who chairs the PAC
Michaela Boyle, who chairs the PAC

Dependence on temporary staff is adding to the financial crisis facing Northern Ireland's health service, a watchdog has warned.

A report by Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) claimed health trusts could be facing a £131m funding gap.

It cited the growing use of locum staff, notably consultants, as a key driver in the spiralling costs.

The committee also found that almost £50m worth of contracts were awarded last year without a competitive tender process.

And it warned of a "culture of fear" that meant whistleblowers faced real problems in speaking out about the health service.

Michaela Boyle, who chairs the PAC, said: "Health and social care (HSC) bodies are facing an unprecedented financial squeeze.

"Although the HSC sector has been more generously funded than other areas of public spending over recent years, it faces increasing demand for its services."

The report found that using large numbers of locum doctors had significantly contributed to the spiralling costs.

This was particularly apparent within the Western Trust, where difficulties in recruiting and retaining permanent consultants put pressure on budgets.

The troubles were mirrored in widespread breaches of waiting times guidelines for elective, emergency and outpatient care.

The committee drew attention to key waiting times for cancer which were not being met.

No hospital was able to ensure that 95% of patients began their first cancer treatment within the standard 62 days.

The percentage of patients seen within 14 days of an urgent referral for breast cancer has also fallen from 84% in 2013/14 to 81% in 2014/15.

Ms Boyle said radical change was needed. "Putting the HSC trusts on a sustainable footing is a major challenge unless there is a significant change in funding or transformation of services," she added.

"One significant problem that the HSC trusts face is that they are unable to carry forward unused funds from one year to the next, impeding their ability to undertake longer-term financial planning."

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