Editor's Viewpoint: Reality check on Northern Ireland health funding
Health Minister Michael McGimpsey was derided by political opponents when he warned that the cash-strapped NHS in Northern Ireland was verging on collapse.
But, as this newspaper reveals today, a document drawn up by health chiefs shows that his comments were on the money. It talks of an £800m black hole in health finances over the next four years which would inevitably lead to a "unmanaged and unplanned collapse" of key services.
That is a frightening and chastening scenario.
But what is the remedy for the NHS's ills? According to health chiefs a radical reappraisal of the number of acute hospitals and A-amp;E units is required. The clear inference is that we have too many hospitals and too many emergency units and that we would be better off with fewer of both. This, of course, is not a new argument. Health officials have repeatedly pointed out that there is an economy of scale in creating a smaller number of super-hospitals which would also attract the best qualified staff and provide the best treatment.
Of course during the current election campaign there will not be one politician who will agree with this argument. As Mr McGimpsey knows, following his decision to halt development of the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital, there are no votes in cutting health services. People want a hospital near where they live and those living in rural areas of the province already feel they are being shortchanged in health service provision.
But this is an issue which must be shorn of emotion. With money likely to continue to be in short supply it is essential that the best possible use is made of available resources. That will inevitably mean a realignment of health services - preferably planned rather than created through a collapse of existing services. Whoever the next Health Minister is must immediately set in motion a thorough examination of healthcare and how it can be delivered efficiently, but more economically. If that means fewer hospitals then that is the price that has to be paid.