Trusts spent £74m on hiring doctors
Health trusts in Northern Ireland spent £74 million hiring doctors from recruitment agencies to cover short-term vacancies in the last four years, a new report has found.
The NHS in the region spent an additional £35 million in the period paying its own staff overtime to cover unfilled shifts, according to the Stormont probe.
The size of the bill from outside agencies has prompted warnings from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that they are being allowed to hold trusts "over a barrel", with some external doctors being paid more than three times the rate of their NHS counterparts.
The PAC, which compiled the report, acknowledged that the use of locums would always be necessary to cover vacancies.
But members expressed concern at the scale of the outlay and said at least £1 million a year could be saved with better management practices.
It found the issue was most acute within the Western Trust, which has traditionally found it difficult to find people willing to take up long-term positions and consequently spends 17% of its overall costs of employing doctors on locums.
In the Belfast Trust the spend is around 5%, with the overall rate across the trusts coming in at about 8%.
Committee chairperson Paul Maskey MP MLA said: "We understand that it is important that trusts are able to employ additional temporary doctors to ensure continuous, good-quality patient care. But at the moment private recruitment agencies can charge inflated rates for providing staff to the health service, and this is not acceptable."
The report found that NHS doctors who were also registered with agencies could negotiate and barter for inflated rates to work overtime and cover shifts. It said pre-employment checks on locums and information-sharing between trusts needed to be improved.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said: "The department welcomes the publication of the report and will consider the committee's recommendations fully. A detailed Memorandum of Reply will be prepared which will set out the response to the issues raised."