Shock over £200m bill for locums racked up in five years
Cash-strapped health chiefs have stacked up a bill of £200m over five years by using expensive locum doctors and nurses, it has emerged.
The staggering figure has emerged as hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland endure lengthy waits for hospital appointments because the health service cannot afford to treat them.
A leading service union has expressed disgust at the spending on locums and said it was time for health officials to address staffing issues.
Ray Rafferty from Unison said: "We're very concerned at the level of spend on locums. We believe that by far the best practice is to ensure there are enough staff in post to serve the needs of the health service.
"The use of locums is a very expensive way of doing business but unfortunately the health service is held to ransom by some groups of staff who choose not to take up full-time posts as a way of reaping the most financial rewards.
"The people we're most concerned about are the patients and the length of time they have to wait to be treated, as a direct result of the budget cuts, and at the same time a huge sum is being spent on locum staff."
According to figures released last week, 129,224 people were waiting more than nine weeks for a first hospital appointment in June - 61% of all patients on the waiting list.
A further 29,028 people were waiting longer than 13 weeks for surgery at the end of June - just under half of the total number of people waiting for an inpatient appointment.
Waiting times for hospital appointments began to creep up after the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) halted the use of the independent sector by health trusts unable to meet waiting time targets.
The £200m spend was released by Health Minister Simon Hamilton in response to an Assembly question submitted by the UUP.
In total, the trusts paid almost £150m on locum doctors between 2010/11 and 2014/15 and a further £48.8m was used to pay for locum nurses over the five years.
The annual spend on locum doctors and nurses rose from £31.8m in 2010/11 to just under £48m five years later - a 50% jump.
Michael McGimpsey, a former health minister and a member of the Stormont health committee, said: "The minister needs to get a grip of the situation.
"If the money was being spent on tackling our waiting lists that would be one thing, but instead it is obvious that the minister and the trusts are becoming increasingly reliant on bank doctors and nurses to cover the major gaps that are developing across the entire workforce. This is neither safe nor is it value for public money."
Mr Hamilton said: "I am disappointed to see increases in the number of people facing waits and also the increased level of spend on locums. I continue to look to the HSCB to work with trusts to deliver on these targets throughout the rest of this year."