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Fast-tracked patients for healthcare scheme in Northern Ireland will now miss out

Scheme: Robin Swann

Thousands of people who qualify for a fast-track healthcare scheme that allows them to skip Northern Ireland's lengthy hospital waiting lists will miss out once the UK formally leaves the EU.

The Cross Border Healthcare Directive (CBHD) gave people fast access to medical procedures and treatment for conditions such as hip and knee replacements.

Under the directive, a qualifying patient covered the cost of having the operation in another EU country but received a full refund within 30 days.

In Northern Ireland, this usually meant crossing the Irish border for surgery, and vice versa.

Over 1,000 people have been approved for the scheme this year, but Health Minister Robin Swann admitted it will not be available next year.

He was responding to a question by Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan, who said an alternative should now be sought.

Currently the 7,000 people here who need a replacement hip or knee can expect to wait from between 56 weeks in the Belfast and Southern Trusts, and 93 weeks in the Western Trust for a hip replacement.

The delay facing people needing a knee replacement is even longer, ranging from 65 weeks in the South Eastern Trust to 114 weeks in the Western Trust - but through the scheme these operations could be done almost immediately.

Mr Durkan said: "It is clear that an alternative to the EU directive must be sought, and I welcome that the Department is currently considering policy options in relation to the principles within the CBHD, for the post withdrawal period.

"The increased public awareness coupled with the North's lengthy waiting lists have led to the soaring number of approvals - the highest number coming from the Western Trust, unsurprisingly, given that the WHSCT also holds the highest waiting times in the region."

Mr Swann said his department is looking at alternatives.

Belfast Telegraph