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Lives at risk over lack of funding for health budget

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey has launched a campaign to secure more cash for the Health Service since expectations for the draft budget fell well short. He tells Health Correspondent Claire Regan about the stark reality for patients if the pot of money is not boosted...

I think it's fair to say that there is widespread unease about the level of resource being offered through the draft budget

Michael McGimpsey does not mince his words - lives are at risk. That's his bleak assessment for the Health Service if the Executive does not re-assess the amount of money allocated to run and develop it over the next three years.

Since detail of the draft budget for the Government was outlined by Finance Minister Peter Robinson last month, Mr McGimpsey has been arguing strongly that his pot is simply not big enough.

He has also been on the road canvassing opinion from staff in all areas of the Health Service on what they think.

He has held meetings with staff at all five health Trusts, the Ambulance Service, the Fire and Rescue Service as well as voluntary organisations and health charities.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Mc- Gimpsey outlined the pressure his Department will be under until 2011 if the budget is not changed.

"I've been making the point in these meetings that we have a certain amount coming in over three years and a much larger amount going out in 'inescapable' costs which gives us a gap of £250m. It doesn't add up.

"At the same time, demand continues to rise and need continues to increase. We can't simply turn people away," he said.

The 'inescapables' the minister refers to include bread and butter costs such as staff pay, pensions, electricity bills and drugs bills, along with areas which the Department has a statutory requirement to deliver, such as child protection.

On top of these costs, the Minister also drew up a list of key areas where services need to be developed. For the financial year 2008-09 the Minister asked for £101m for these services but was offered just £16m in the draft budget. For the following year he requires £181m but has been given just £32m. And for the year 2010-11, he asked for £302m but has received £97m.

Top of this list is mental health and learning disability and the implementation of the Bamford Review. The review, which worked for five years to examine such services in the province, concluded that an extra £50m needs to be invested over the next three years to implement its recommendations.

Other areas are the development of services for conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, disability and children's services.

These are all services which place a large burden on the Health Service and which affect huge numbers of people. They have been offered funding but nowhere near what the minister says is needed to make a real difference.

Other proposals with the vast potential to save lives are also under threat. Up to 45,000 women aged over 65 will not benefit from the extension of breast screening until 2010.

A UK-wide vaccination programme for schoolgirls to protect against the virus which can cause cervical cancer is also under-funded. It had been due to begin next year and has proven in other countries to reduce cervical cancer deaths by 75%.

The introduction of bowel cancer screening, which could cut deaths by two- thirds, faces a shortfall.

Some initiatives on the list will not see one penny if the draft budget is rubber-stamped. These include proposals for free personal care for the elderly, free prescriptions, free eye exams, much-needed investment in the Fire and Rescue Service and further development in cardiovascular and cancer services.

Surveying the list, the minister said: "Lives are at risk, there's no doubt. These are areas of great need. This is not us shooting for the stars - it's us being realistic. We know money's tight."

Mr McGimpsey said there was grassroots agreement with his argument for more money.

"I think it's fair to say that there is widespread unease about the level of resource being offered through the draft budget," he said. " Feedback has been universally supportive. I've had virtually no negative feedback at all - and any I have had has been of a political nature."

He is alluding to a row with DUP chair of the Stormont health committee, Iris Robinson, which saw her getting suspended from the Assembly for a day when she refused to withdraw remarks implying that the minister has 'misled' the public by saying he had not agreed the budget.

"The whole initial politicisation of the budget was unfortunate and I don't think helped the situation," he said.

He also highlighted the key health figures who have supported his argument.

"I'm not being mischievous or difficult. I'm simply reflecting reality as it is. I have been supported by the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride, the head of the Fire Service, the head of Ambulance Service, the chair of the Mental Health and Learning Disability Board as well as charities and unions such as the Royal College of Nursing and Unison. All those people are giving me the same message."

The senior Ulster Unionist said he believed the focus of the Executive has shifted away from health, despite it still being a top priority for people.

"The skew is away from health, towards the economy and business. I'm not saying that economy shouldn't be a priority but my argument remains that health is still the number one priority for people.

"The Health Service is the key barometer for people on whether Government is working for them. If health's not working, people conclude the Government's not working. It's a brave Government indeed that would ignore the will of people and their number one priority by downgrading health."

Public consultation on the draft budget is open until January 4 and Mr McGimpsey is hoping people will vociferously voice their opinion.

"We will have our next Executive meeting on January 17 and that's the first meeting I anticipate having on the budget.

"All I can do is make the case as firmly and as strongly as I can. I haven't heard anybody being able to refute the case."

¿ The consultation is open until January 4 2008. People can respond by writing or by attending public consultations. For more information log on to

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