Health service: £60m cash injection might avert immediate trouble, but long-term issues no nearer to a resolution
Edwin Poots is on course for a further £60m injection into the health service following a series of behind-the-scenes meetings at Stormont.
Sinn Fein has indicated it is prepared to accede to the cash boost in the next quarterly spending round after talks between First Minister Peter Robinson, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton with Mr Poots.
The DUP leader revealed an "understanding" has been reached that Mr Hamilton will seek the £60m next month following the £20m given to health from the delayed June monitoring negotiations.
The outline deal emerged after Mr Poots and chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride warned the Assembly's health committee of the consequences facing patients unless their departmental budget was increased. In his first public comments on the current crisis, Dr McBride warned more people will be waiting for NICE-approved (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) drugs "and having to develop a waiting list.
"That is people waiting in pain and people developing complications potentially if these situations materialise."
Mr Poots also warned of reductions in locum and agency doctors and nurses, less money for drug treatments of cancer, arthritis and MS, and pay restraint for health care staff.
Mr Robinson also met Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on the issue, paving the way for the £60m increase to be confirmed at the next meeting of the Stormont Executive next Tuesday.
Mr Robinson said he had concluded the minimum needed to ameliorate the worst consequences for the Department of Health would be £80m "taking account of the fact that trying to find more would have devastating consequences in other departments.
"Undoubtedly, there will be difficult decisions required but in the context of securing extra money, the Minister of Health has already indicated he can deal with the worst excesses of the measures he would otherwise be examining."
And in response yesterday, Sinn Fein economic spokesperson Daithi McKay said: "(We) will robustly scrutinise all bids but are sympathetic to the £60m pressures outlined by the the chief medical officer.
"(We) recognise the ever-increasing pressures on our health service. But defending these core services also means ensuring there is effective and efficient management in the context of finite resources and the massive cuts that have been imposed by the Tory-led government in London.
"The October monitoring round will distribute available resources and in this context it is clear that health will bid for the funding it needs to meet immediate pressures," Mr McKay added.
The moves towards a settlement calmed the atmosphere after a stormy week when the growing health funding crisis looked as if it could become another fracture between the two largest Stormont parties.
But while the immediate financial crisis may have been averted, underlying, longer-term issues over funding seem no nearer to being fully resolved. The DUP asks how Sinn Fein can insist it is opposed to public spending cuts when it has already agreed on the Executive to more than £160m of reductions across departments in this financial year.
And Sinn Fein query that if Mr Poots cannot manage on his current budget, how will he cope with the introduction of welfare reform likely to increase pressures on the health service?
SDLP health spokesman Fearghal McKinney called on the NI Audit Office to examine Mr Poot's claims that he is facing a £140m shortfall.
His intervention came after the minister revealed the cuts could mean reductions in locum and agency doctors and nurses, less money for drug treatments of cancer, arthritis and MS, and pay restraint for healthcare staff.
Mr McKinney argued: "It is our belief that the (TYC) plan itself is leading to many of the difficulties in health such as the crisis in Accident and Emergency."
A showdown between the minister and MLAs paid to monitor him saw more party point-scoring than any forensic probe. Ulster Unionist health spokeswoman Jo Anne Dobson pointedly asked Poots: "Thirty-nine months have passed since you became minister, why has it taken so long for you to essentially ring the alarm bells?"
Poots replied: "I didn't have cause to ring alarm bells over the course of the last 39 months, I did ring alarm bells in April of this year, it is August when your party and others are picking up on it."
The committee chairperson, Maeve McLaughlin, concluded the session saying: "There are questions why the budget bid went up from £67m in January to £160m in June.
"There is a need for more scrutiny because in many ways it would appear money is not going in the right direction."
Poots responded: "You are the scrutiny committee and I regret that you are condemning your own scrutiny.
"We are not going to have someone standing in every ward because that would cost us more money than the wastage."