More than 700 people applied to a scheme to reimburse Northern Ireland patients for treatment in the Republic in less than three months, with more than £130,000 paid out in the same period.
Previously, patients languishing on waiting lists here could get treatment in the Republic under the Cross-Border Health Directive. However this ended due to Brexit.
Earlier this year, Health Minister Robin Swann opened the Republic of Ireland Reimbursement Scheme as a temporary replacement. Under the scheme, patients are able to seek, and pay for, private treatment in the Republic and have the cost reimbursed by the Health and Social Care Board up to the cost of that treatment in Northern Ireland.
The scheme opened on July 1 for a 12-month period. From July 1 to September 24, the Health and Social Care Board received 724 completed applications under the scheme, approved 469 cases to travel for treatment, and authorised 25 reimbursements at a cost of £131,177.
Only three applications were not given approval and 90% of applications that were approved were for orthopaedic treatments.
SDLP health spokesperson Cara Hunter said the fact that so many people here are availing of the temporary reimbursement scheme and using it to get the treatment they need shows we need to have a permanent replacement for the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive.
“If this temporary scheme was not in place then hundreds of people would have been unable to apply for the treatment they so clearly need,” she said.
“They would have likely been left on our ever-lengthening waiting lists and putting more pressure on a health service that is continually mired in crisis.
“Brexit has been bad for people here in innumerable ways, including for their health. If it wasn’t for the Northern Ireland Protocol we would be experiencing even more issues akin to those being keenly felt in GB at the minute.
“Anything that helps our people get the healthcare they need should be a matter of utmost importance and I implore Health Minister Robin Swann to ensure that a permanent service is established to allow people to continue accessing treatment in the South.”
Alliance Party health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said that, while she welcomes the news that so many people have been able to access healthcare, given the “horrendous” hospital waiting lists, the Republic of Ireland Reimbursement Scheme should also be open to independent sector hospitals here.
“If the health service is willing to pay independent hospitals in the Republic for these procedures, at a set tariff, then why should the same arrangements not be available on an all-Island basis?” she asked.
“The sooner patients receive their treatment, the less complicated the procedure and better the long-term prognosis.”
Under the EU’s Cross-Border Directive scheme, thousands of Northern Ireland residents received £14.1m worth of healthcare over the last five years.
The Department of Health said: “A full policy review on a longer term solution is currently being taken forward by the Department.”
Speaking upon the announcement of the scheme in June, Mr Swann said it was aimed at tackling our dire waiting lists.
“We need an urgent and collective approach across government to tackle this issue and deliver a health service that is fit for the 21st century,” he added.
“I remain steadfast in my commitment to tackle issues within the health service and I do not underestimate the challenge ahead.”