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Health minister accused of 'pre-election stunts' over waiting list plan

The health minister has been accused of "cruelly engaging in pre-election stunts" after she published a plan to tackle patient waiting lists, despite a lack of budget.

Michelle O'Neill said Northern Ireland's health service needs an immediate £31 million to help reduce the thousands of patients waiting longer than a year for treatment.

She insisted she was confident the money could be secured, despite the political crisis at Stormont and the fact no budget has been agreed.

Currently, an estimated 40,000 people are waiting more that 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment. Around 8,000 patients are waiting longer than a year for day care inpatient treatment.

Outlining her vision on how to transform health and social care services in the region, Mrs O'Neill said £31m would clear the backlog, by March 2018, of patients waiting more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment and inpatient/day case at March 2017. In addition, the backlog of patients waiting more than 26 weeks at March 2017 for diagnostics would also be cleared by March 2018.

She insisted the plan for reforming the system, which is in response to a report by Professor Rafael Bengoa, was not hypothetical, even though there is uncertainty over the health budget.

"That money needs triggered as soon as possible. I cannot fathom why anyone would not support this as a plan," Mrs O'Neill said.

She added: "Waiting lists are totally unacceptable to me. We need to deal with the waiting list backlog and long-term transformation (of the health service)."

Bolstering primary care is another priority, Mrs O'Neill said.

However Ulster Unionist candidate Jo-Anne Dobson accused the Sinn Fein minister of "cruelly engaging in pre-election stunts".

"Michelle O'Neill can state as often as she likes that she is concerned about (waiting lists), but the unavoidable reality is that for the last eight months she has failed to do anything about them," she said.

Alliance candidate Paula Bradshaw questioned where the funding will come from.

"It is concerning the lack of a budget means the allocation of funding which is needed to achieve what the plan sets out to do remains unclear - a fact admitted by the minister. 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.

DUP candidate Paula Bradley said while she welcomed the proposals they were "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," she added.

But the minister said: "The reason we are in this scenario is because of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal and corruption at the heart of government."

In January it emerged that emergency department waiting times across the north have continued to increase.

Almost 900 patients were left waiting for treatment for more than 12 hours in December, Department of Health statistics show, more than triple the number in December 2015.

Ministerial targets say no patient attending an emergency care department should wait longer than 12 hours, but the Department of Health's latest statistics for the region show that in December, 887 patients waited longer than 12 hours to be either treated and discharged or admitted.

The Department of Health said in January there had been a 5.7% increase in attendances the previous month.

A total of 62,094 people attended emergency departments in December, an increase of 3,360 from the previous year.

The statistics also showed that in December only 65.4% of patients were treated and discharged or admitted within four hours. The target is 95%.

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