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Hard decisions needed for our health services

I refer to a number of letters published in recent editions of the Belfast Telegraph questioning decisions taken about health and social care services in Northern Ireland.

Health is the number one priority for all of us and as Health Minister it is an extremely important priority for me.

In the past two years alone, there has been an increase of some 20% in demand for hospital services, yet funding for health and social care has only increased by less than 1% in real terms, the lowest rise in living memory.

The facts about the crippling budget limitations are worth repeating. I have to find £700m of efficiency savings - £111m this year alone - which has been further coupled with the recent £113m cut to my budget.

As readers can appreciate, the impact on my budget has been considerable and has meant I have had to make tough decisions.

Whiteabbey and Mid-Ulster hospitals are not closing; their long term future is secure. The A&E services have moved to Antrim Area hospital because the Trust could not guarantee that acute medical and A&E services could be safely maintained on their existing sites. A minor injuries service is now provided at both the Mid-Ulster and Whiteabbey hospitals.

Regarding maternity services at Lagan Valley hospital, I intend to introduce a community midwifery unit.

In relation to the claim that new mothers are 'turfed' out of the Royal Maternity Hospital after six hours, where a woman and her baby are both healthy and ready for discharge, it is not in anyone's interests to delay this. If a woman is not ready for discharge then she will obviously remain in hospital until she is ready.

The lack of funding means it is not possible to ensure short waiting times for all surgical procedures and while the majority of inpatients and day cases should be treated within 13 weeks, some patients may have to wait up to 36 weeks.

I have done everything possible to protect and sustain services and staff and to ensure that patients do not suffer. I have to live within my budget and that means difficult decisions need to be made.

MICHAEL McGIMPSEY

Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety

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