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Northern Ireland minister Simon Hamilton 'must explain health revamp'

By Victoria O'Hara

Simon Hamilton has been urged to explain how his "radical" plans to overhaul the ailing Northern Ireland health service will work after he announced he plans to axe the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB).

The calls for more detail come from the Stormont health committee after the DUP Health Minister revealed reforms described as "the biggest shake-up in five years".

The move - one of a range of proposals - has been cautiously welcomed, as the HSCB was previously criticised for being "bloated" and an extra tier of bureaucracy.

The board employs about 470 people with a budget of £27m. Some staff will leave through voluntary redundancy, while others will move within the service.

The proposals come months after a review by former Chief Medical Officer for England Sir Liam Donaldson, who said Northern Ireland had too many hospitals for its population of 1.8 million. Mr Hamilton's proposed plans include:

  • Setting up a clinical-led panel of local experts to advise on reform.
  • A summit involving political parties to gauge opinions on solutions.
  • Finding finance for a Transformation Fund to pay for cost-saving initiatives.

The Public Health Agency will remain, but is to work closer with the Department of Health.

On the closure of the HSCB, Mr Hamilton said he was removing a tier of bureaucracy that would make the system more efficient.

The minister, however, added that he was "categorically ruling out" setting up an international panel of experts to redesign Northern Ireland's health and social care provision, as suggested in the Donaldson report.

"From conversations I have had with clinicians it is clear that many feel that our commissioning system doesn't work, they don't understand it, and it actually inhibits innovation," he said.

"What I am signalling is an end to the current way we commission healthcare in Northern Ireland. It has not worked, and arguably is never going to work well in a small region like ours. I propose that we close down the Health and Social Care Board. This is about structures, not people. The board has many talented people doing many important things to a very high standard. But the administrative structures created during the last Assembly do not serve us well, especially as they blur the lines of accountability and weaken authority."

A public consultation will be launched and the process is expected to take at least two years.

HSCB chief executive Valerie Watts said that reform was necessary across the healthcare system to ensure that people had access to the best possible health and social care service. Stormont health committee chairwoman Maeve McLaughlin, however, said the Health Minister must come before the committee to explain to MLAs the "meat on the bones" of the plans.

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee, said it needed an urgent meeting with the minister.

"The BMA's GPs committee have asked for an early meeting to ensure the position of GPs as independent contractors is maintained within these changes as general practice is the foundation for much of the health service."

Alison Millar, Nipsa deputy general secretary, said: "It is unacceptable that the minister ignored the many requests from Nipsa for a briefing.

"Nipsa will be ensuring whatever the outcome of the announcement today that members' terms, conditions and job security is fully protected."

Belfast Telegraph

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