Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland health service faces £1bn budget pressures despite £40m cash boost

By Donna Deeney

The Health Service in Northern Ireland is facing budget pressures of more than a £1bn over the next two years, the Department has warned.

Although £40m was diverted to health from other Stormont departments yesterday, the Health and Social Care Board estimates that savings of £430m and £670m will have to be made in the next two years just to keep services at current levels.

This year the five health trusts across Northern Ireland had been asked to find £70m worth of savings - prompting a massive public outcry and huge opposition from health professionals.

A spokeswoman for the HSC said the £40m "offers important short-term respite, however, the best long-term way to counter these pressures is transformation".

She added: "The financial issues faced this year will only grow in intensity as we move forward.

"Demand for health services is growing steadily as people live longer lives, chronic conditions increase, and new drugs and technologies are developed." The spokeswoman said that reforms recommended by an expert panel led by Professor Rafael Bengoa last year "must be addressed in a systematic and sustainable way which is in parallel with improving the quality of services".

She added: "Transformation plans must continue for our health and social services so that resources are used in the most effective way in the best interests of patients."

The South Eastern Health Trust welcomed the extra money, and said it means it will be able to stop controversial cutbacks and those that would have a major impact.

"This injection of cash for health and social care will ease the pressures on our staff as we move into winter, and will prevent any planned reduction in elective capacity," it added.

NIPSA general secretary Alison Millar said that while any additional money for public services is always welcome "it is important to note that this is not new or additional money - but recycled money".

She added: "It is a disgrace that if the Departments were aware that some money was likely to become available in October that the consultation to reduce the health budgets by £70m was, as expected, a total sham.

"This left many very vulnerable people very worried about their futures and what it would mean for them and their families. In some cases this worry has been unnecessary."

Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said the funding was the result of "people power".

"The public was always going to reject outrageous proposals to strip older people of their right to care and inflict further hardship on patients on waiting lists," she said.

Unite regional officer Kevin McAdam hit out at the Permanent Secretary for Health, Richard Pengelly.

"The threat he raised over vital healthcare provision caused widespread, and unnecessary, concern among the most vulnerable in our community," he said.

"Mr Pengelly must now hold himself responsible for this and the fact that his Department has been forced into yet another climbdown, one entirely of his own making."

Ulster Unionist health spokesman Roy Beggs accused the Department of causing unnecessary fear and anxiety to frontline users.

He said: "It was known for some time that additional money would be allocated from in-year monitoring and that in reality many of these short-term savings might ultimately not be required. However, the Department never acknowledged this."

However, SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan warned that unless the Assembly is up and running the HSC will not be able to spend the £40m.

He explained: "While on the face of it, this looks like great news, in reality the only way this money can be allocated is with the passing of a Budget Act - something the political deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Fein is preventing.

"The political failure of Sinn Fein and the DUP to restore the Assembly means this money cannot be released without political agreement."

Not all of the £40m will be spent reducing the trusts' saving measures.

Mr Pengelly has written to the five trust bosses saying that, after factoring in the "latest financial forecasts", the cash boost will enable the total to be reduced to £52m.

However, he said the department was prepared to overshoot the projected annual budget by £10m at this stage in the hope that actual expenditure by year-end will be less than expected, thus eliminating the over-commitment.

As a consequence, he has asked the trusts to make £42m of savings which, in effect, means £3m of cuts to frontline services, as opposed to the original request to find £31m.

Mr Pengelly stressed the need to press ahead with Stormont plans to reform and restructure service delivery in the years ahead. He said the financial position was "quite simply unsustainable" without "real and rapid transformation".

There were other beneficiaries of the Stormont funding reallocation.

The Department for Infrastructure has received £3m of resource spend and £11.2m of extra capital funding. The money will partly be used to deal with the fallout of the summer's flash floods in the north west.

Education has been allocated an additional £10m to address budget pressures in schools, while the Department for the Economy has received £1m.

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