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  1. ITV Report

Health reform plan to tackle waiting lists in doubt

There are fears that a plan to tackle excessive waiting times as part of a radical health system overhaul has stalled because of political disarray at Stormont.

It has been a fraught start to the year in the corridors of our hospitals, with patients being told to avoid emergency departments unless their need was urgent.

One health chief has told UTV that pressure on staff is the worst experienced in 20 years.

In October, in response to a report by Professor Bengoa, Minister O’Neill launched a 10-year plan for reforming a system she says is at breaking point.

Top of Michelle O'Neill's agenda - a plan to tackle waiting lists - that was supposed to be brought forward this month.

Bolstering primary care was another priority and by spring every GP was to have a district nurse, health visitor and social worker.

But now there are fears this timeframe is in jeopardy - because of political meltdown at Stormont and the fact that a new budget has not been agreed.

Representatives of frontline health workers say change is needed now to address the crisis facing health care.

Our services have been struggling for some time, are not sustainable. They are on the verge of collapse if we don’t do something to progress the changes that we need to make.

– Janice Smyth from the Royal College of Nursing said: “

With the first stage set to start this month, it seems the overhaul is stalled before it even began.

Those who work on the health service frontline say that's simply unacceptable.

Dr George O'Neill, a Belfast GP, told UTV: “The rug is being pulled from under our feet and it looks like we are going to have a hiatus when none of this will be delivered.

“It was my understanding that the Executive had in principle, agreed to release at least seed monies to ensure that we could move this forward pretty rapidly. I sit in general practice, general practice is crumbling around us.”

Ray Rafferty from Unison said: “We already see some of the longest waiting lists for surgical patients that there has ever been. The danger now is that those waiting lists are going to get even longer.”

Mary Caddell from the Royal College of Midwives added: “Is there going to be a vacuum and is it a case that we are going to have another period of time and then we have to reinvent ourselves and re-motivate ourselves, there’s only so much of that that we can do.”

DUP MLA Edwin Poots has blamed Sinn Féin for pulling out of the Executive and bringing the plan to a halt.

“I believe the health service has been taken second place to Sinn Féin’s aspirations to become the dominant force in Northern Ireland politics and I think that that is a hugely regrettable that they would play with the health service in this way,” he said.

We need to transform the health service, we can’t keep doing things the way we are and then expect a different outcome.

– Health Minister Michelle O'Neill

Speaking to UTV, Health Minister Michelle O’Neill said the long term solution is “actually transforming health and social care and delivering better health outcomes for individuals”.

When drawn on the short term, she said her party could not be in government “with partners who aren’t interested in delivering for equality for all of our citizens”.

“What we need to have are institutions that deliver for all of the public, we need to make sure that nobody faces any barriers and what we have at the minute and time is a DUP that is only interested in delivering for certain sections of society,” she said.

“I have been working tirelessly over the last seven months to make sure that I do absolutely everything I can to tackle the waiting lists, to work with frontline staff to make sure every measure that can be taken is being taken to address the issue.

“I published a vision last year, seven months ago in relation to how we need to transform health and social care, I’m absolutely wedded to that vision, I’ve set out my stall in relation to what I think needs to happen.”

Minister O'Neill added: “If we don’t transform the health service we won’t ever get to the point where we’re ever able to successfully tackle excessive waiting lists. That remains my commitment and I’ve said last year that I’ll publish an elective care plan in January and that remains my position.”

The timeline for health change is currently in doubt and with politics in disarray, frustration on the ground is growing.