Healthcare news

ANALYSIS: Health and Social Care Board given stay of execution

Valerie Watts, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, has previously defended its role. Picture by Mal McCann
Seanín Graham

AXING four health boards and creating a single central organisation was part of a major plan to reduce bureaucracy in the north's health service back in 2009.

The new Health and Social Care Board was a powerful administrative body with a multi-billion pound budget which it used to buy - or "commission", in the jargon of the civil service - frontline services for local trusts to deliver.

By 2014, however, its new chief executive Valerie Watts was defending its role after this newspaper revealed a 20 per cent increase in staff numbers and salaries over two years - at a time of savage cuts elsewhere.

Ms Watts also criticised the "demoralising" influence of the media and said she would like to set up a television station airing NHS success stories to counter "negative" newspaper reporting.

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Warning signs about the Board's future came soon afterwards when then DUP health minister Edwin Poots questioned its function, saying he "wouldn't rule out" transferring commissioning to civil servants at the Department of Health.

Just over a year later, the deed was done in a bombshell announcement by DUP colleague Simon Hamilton, following a scathing assessment by the highly respected medic, Sir Liam Donaldson.

Mr Hamilton set an 18-month target for the body to be wound up - an unusually short timescale which outraged the Board's top brass.

The revelation that it will take at least another two years for the closure to actually happen should come as no real surprise.

With the future of the devolved institutions still in doubt, the fact that the body's abolition will be subject to the "incoming health minister's approval" also raises concerns about the new target of 2018/19.

Meanwhile, there remain questions around the Board's current role and its annual wage bill.

Its director of commissioning, Dean Sullivan, has already quit his job for a top post in the Republic while many of the body's powers are being transferred to senior departmental civil servants.

It will be down to the next minister - be it devolved or direct rule - to act on the advice of Liam Donaldson or else signal a further costly stay of execution.

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