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Stormont watchdog chair hits out at waiting list crisis

Stormont health committee chair Maeve McLaughlin has criticised the scale of the waiting list problem
SeanĂ­n Graham

THE chair of the Stormont health committee has described her "alarm" after learning of the 800 per cent increase in the number of patients waiting more than a year to see a consultant.

Sinn Féin's Maeve McLaughlin said the spiralling waiting lists, which also affect 7,000 patients facing lengthy delays for operations, were "unacceptable" and questioned who was in charge of the north’s health service.

Details of the waiting lists were revealed yesterday in The Irish News. The massive spike related to the period between March and December last year.

It also emerged that the 62-day target for the treatment of urgent cancer cases had been massively breached by health trusts before Christmas.

Ms McLaughlin admitted that she had not been aware of the scale of the problem and called for more transparency in relation to the publication of NHS information.

"The figures published in the Irish News had not been brought to my attention and I am very alarmed.

"I don’t understand how they have risen so dramatically - its not as if there has been some epidemic or people have suddenly got sicker over a nine-month period. I know the authorities say there is a funding shortage and lack of capacity but there has been increased investment.

"But this also begs the question as to who is responsible for this situation. Who is being held to account and who is developing an action plan to address this? The health trusts have been given targets and they are not performing.

"The Board is there to manage them and they are not performing - and then you have a Department with a minister who says he will be monitoring performance. This is a highly flawed system."

It took a fortnight for the Health and Social Care Board to confirm that almost 650 planned operations were cancelled in January, following a request from the Irish News. Among these were at least four urgent cancer operations.

Other figures were obtained through the Board’s monthly performance reports. The Department of Health will publish its quarterly waiting lists statistics tomorrow.

Ms McLaughlin said she intended to submit questions to health minister Simon Hamilton on the issue.

“If this was happening in England you would expect to see heads roll,” she added.

Mr Hamilton was not available for interview yesterday.

Last November the DUP minister made the shock announcement that the Board was to be abolished in the next 18 months amid concerns about its role and "layers" of bureaucracy in the health service.

Mr Hamilton also set up an expert panel chaired by a former Spanish health minister which will be tasked with overhauling the sector over coming months.

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