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Private health care can help cut waiting lists - minister

Published 27/10/2016

Minister Michelle O'Neill has tried to reassure people on waiting lists for health care
Minister Michelle O'Neill has tried to reassure people on waiting lists for health care

Stormont's health minister has vowed to set aside her ideological opposition to private health care to help cut Northern Ireland's waiting lists.

Michelle O'Neill said she was prepared to utilise the independent sector as a short-term measure to reduce the time it takes to treat people.

The Sinn Fein minister also downplayed the significance of the lack of extra funding to address waiting lists in the Executive's quarterly reallocation of departmental funds.

She said the October monitoring round was less important than the £200 million she had already secured from the Executive coffers this year in addition to her baseline budget.

Mrs O'Neill was giving evidence to her Stormont scrutiny committee on her newly published 10-year plan to restructure health and social care in the region.

The plan included a pledge to formulate, by January next year, a detailed strategy to tackle waiting lists.

DUP committee member Gary Middleton asked the minister how could she reassure those on waiting lists in the here and now.

Mrs O'Neill acknowledged there was a need for short-term fixes in addition to the longer term restructuring plans.

"As we embark on transformation if we don't build public confidence in tackling the issue of waiting lists I think it will be difficult for people to buy into what it is we are trying to do," she said.

The minister said waiting lists were a "symptom of an outdated system".

"We need to push the system to make sure it can do everything it possibly can and it's up to full capacity and, in the short term, we may need to go out to use the independent sector also," she said.

"That's not somewhere I want to be but it is somewhere I will go to ensure that patients get seen in as quickly a manner as possible."

She added: "It's totally unacceptable for me as a minister to say some people are waiting the lengths of time they are .

"So I will do absolutely everything I can to bring down waiting lists - that's the comfort and message I would send out very clearly to the public.

"Everything that is in my power and capability to do to bring down waiting lists, I will be doing it."

While Mrs O'Neill's department received some extra funding in this week's October monitoring round announcement, none of it was to tackle waiting lists.

This has prompted questions over the Executive's commitment to deal with the problem.

The minister told the committee the traditional process of departments making specific bids for extra monitoring round funds was no longer in operation.

She said it was therefore wrong to say she had a bid for funding rejected.

"I wasn't turned down - there is no longer a formal bidding process," she said.

"October monitoring has absolutely changed. What there is now is an ongoing dialogue with the Finance Minister (Mairtin O Muilleoir) and Executive colleagues and I have had that discussion with him on many occasions."

She added: "I am not disappointed by October monitoring - October monitoring is what it is. I think that's not the way to address the longer term issues in the health service."

The minister stressed that the executive parties were committed to spending an extra £1 billion on health over the next five years.

Mrs O'Neill said the additional £200 million she had already received on top of her budget this year was being used to tackle waiting times.

"I think that (the £200 million) is where we can make a real difference - October monitoring isn't going to solve the problems we have," she said.

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