Health crisis forces elderly to raid savings to go private
Exclusive: 33,600 in limbo for more than year before first appointment
Spiralling hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland are forcing increasing numbers of pensioners to cash in their life savings to pay for private treatment, it has been warned.
Shocking figures reveal that more than 33,600 people have been waiting longer than a year for their first outpatient appointment, leading UUP leader Mike Nesbitt to warn of an unprecedented crisis facing our health service.
There are also warnings that waiting times will get even worse before they improve.
Mark Regan, the CEO of Kingsbridge Private Hospital, part of Northern Ireland's largest private healthcare provider, said that more people, especially the elderly, were being forced to fund their own treatment.
"This is particularly evident for procedures such as cataract surgery in eyes and joint replacement in hips and knees. These are really debilitating conditions for the elderly in our rapidly ageing local population," Mr Regan said.
"These patients are often in their 60s or 70s and are contacting us because they are waiting so long for surgery; at times this can be one to two years.
"In the end they resort to using their lifetime savings and pension pots, or their children pay for it from their own income, so that the parent or relative can have the procedure in a more acceptable time frame."
Mr Regan added: "We have people living the latter years of their life in pain, at the very time they should be retired and enjoying themselves."
He said that elderly patients in Northern Ireland wouldn't have these problems if they were in England. He said the NHS in England guaranteed 18 weeks as the maximum time between when patients leave their GPs to their actual surgery.
"Its unfortunate as a society that we are in this situation, but opting to pay privately for surgery is the only way to get the same speed of access locally," Mr Regan said.
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill revealed that at the end of July there were 19,849 people waiting more than a year for a first outpatient appointment in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust; 1,698 people in the Northern Trust; 4,689 in the South Eastern Trust; 3,278 in the Southern Trust, and 4,104 in the Western Trust. Dr Tom Black, chair of BMA Northern Ireland's general practitioners' committee, said those numbers reflected the stress on the entire health service. He said the long waits added to doctors' workloads as patients rely on GPs until they get outpatient appointments.
Mr Nesbitt said that such long waiting lists were compromising people's health.
"With so many patients not receiving any care at all - never mind in a safe or timely manner - by dwelling on a waiting list for such extended periods of time, I believe lives are being placed at risk," he said. He added the number of people waiting for hospital treatment and the amount of time they were waiting was "greater than at any time in recent history. It is not good enough that Health Minister Michelle O'Neill makes a speech in the Assembly agreeing the situation is intolerable, as if she is a member of the Opposition. She is not in Opposition. She is in power and it is high time she used that power to reverse the slide".
Ms O'Neill responded by calling the waiting times unacceptable and saying they are high on her priorities. But she added: "There is no quick fix. To be able to deliver sustainable improvements in waiting times, we must take action that addresses the root causes of the problem. Short-term measures to address immediate pressures will, on their own, not be enough.
She added that waiting times were just one health service issue.
"I am considering the expert panel's report, which makes very clear the need for change. I look forward to setting out my vision for health and social care. That will include elective care waiting times.
"The health service here will continue to do its utmost within the resources it has to ensure that the clinical needs of patients are met, patient safety is maintained and patients do not wait any longer than they have to."