Thousands of operations cancelled because NHS can't get photocopying done on time
NHS administrative delays have led to a backlog of thousands of operations to be carried out in the private sector - despite a £40 million bailout to ease spiralling waiting lists.
The Irish News has learned that some of the north's top private healthcare firms - which won major contracts late last year to carry out NHS work - are being forced to cancel surgery slots because they are not receiving referrals fast enough from health trusts.
It is estimated that as many as 2,000 private slots a week are being "wasted" for NHS patients who urgently require procedures such as hip and knee replacements, spinal and stomach surgery and ENT operations.
Delays in simple administrative tasks such as photocopying patient referrals charts have led to the problem, one source revealed, who described the situation as "pretty dire".
Multi-million pound NHS contracts with private or 'independent' firms were axed in July 2014 due to budget pressures.
But the staggering scale of the north's waiting lists – one in five of the population are facing delays, the worst rates in Europe - and pressure on health minister Simon Hamilton led to an announcement last November that £40m from Executive funds would be used to tackle the crisis.
Mr Hamilton said the aim was to carry out 10,000 to 15,000 operations and procedures and 40,000 assessments.
Those who won the new contracts include previous players such as the Belfast-based 3fivetwo group, a private Hillsborough clinic and the North West Independent hospital in Co Derry.
Liz Dallas, director of the Ballykelly-based North West private hospital which carries out waiting list work for all five health trusts, said it cannot do the surgery if patients aren't being referred.
Ms Dallas, who is a nurse by profession and has been running the facility since 1989, also warned that an "unrealistic" deadline had been set by the health service - with all work to be completed by March 31, the end of this financial year.
"It's become a nightmare with bureaucratic delays seriously impinging on capacity to do work. We have carried out some orthopaedic operations but thousands of ENT and general surgery procedures cannot be done because we haven't received the paperwork," she said.
"We are willing and able to do the surgeries but there is no chance of it all being done by the March 31 cut-off. The tenders for these contracts went out in November but the health service has been dragging its feet for six weeks.
"Our hospital has been engaging with consultants but the slots are being wasted. We deliver very safe care and simply cannot proceed with surgery if all the patient information and history is not there."
Latest figures show there are more than 400,000 patients on the north's waiting lists, of which 62,000 are facing lengthy delays for operations.
Ms Dallas added: "Surely the last year has proven how inefficient the health service has become with the size of the waiting lists - you would think they would act and make it easier for us to plan."
The Irish News asked the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), which oversees the work of the health trusts, to provide figures on how many operations had been carried out in the independent sector since November and to comment on the backlog.
They were unable to answer the query but released a statement, saying it was a "highly fluid position" and that arrangements are place for "detailed monitoring" of procedures that take place for each health trust - but this information is "not yet available".
"Trusts hold the contracts with independent sector providers and are providing regular updates to the Board on the volume of activity being secured through contracts awarded," the statement said.
"...The Department of Health statement in November 2015 indicated the broad number of additional assessments and treatments that it is aimed to carry out with the additional funding allocated.
"The HSCB is working with Trusts to ensure as many additional assessments and treatment are carried out as possible. Trusts are also undertaking additional activity internally using this funding.”