Surge in Northern Ireland patients heading to eastern Europe for cut-price operations
A SPIKE in the number of patients travelling across Europe for operations due to Northern Ireland's dire waiting lists has cost the health service almost £1.5m – in a 'last resort' scheme under threat from Brexit.
Desperate pensioners facing five-year delays for hip replacements in the north's hospitals are among those getting loans of up to £10,000 to fly to Lithuania and other parts of eastern Europe for cut-price surgery.
Figures obtained by The Irish News shows a huge rise in the number of applications to the EU scheme which was introduced four years ago and allows patients to pay upfront and then be reimbursed by the NHS.
Just 14 people used the little-known initiative in its first year but as the north's waiting lists rocketed and publicity around the 'EU Cross Border Directive' increased, application numbers surged to more than 700 in the past year.
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A total of 1,007 people were 'approved' by the north's Health and Social Care Board since 2014 – with £1,536,234 paid out to 416 patients. Not everyone who successfully applies "decides to proceed" with treatment, a board spokeswoman said.
Private hospitals in Dublin are currently running newspaper advertisements urging patients to apply for the scheme, warning that time is running out with Brexit looming.
When asked as to what impact Brexit will have on the future of the project, a board spokeswoman said: "This is not yet known".
"The Department of Health is working closely with counterparts in other Northern Ireland departments, England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland as we prepare for the implications of leaving the EU and determine the decisions and actions that need to be taken," she added.
Slovakia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic are among the countries patients have travelled to for surgery – with orthopaedic surgeries and cataract procedures the most common.
Patients suffering from brain-related illnesses, fertility problems and kidney conditions have also applied.
Patients affected have also travelled to the Republic and got reimbursed – but only partially as the cost of a hip replacement in a private Dublin clinic is €15,000. Under the scheme, you will receive a maximum of £6,377 from the north's health service for surgery.
Dr Tom Black, a GP based in the Bogside in Derry, said he has noticed a big increase in the number of queries about the programme.
The high-profile medic, who is the new chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), said the number of people forced to seek surgery overseas was a "terrible indictment on our society".
"I am getting a couple of calls most weeks from patients who need hip and knee operations or cataract surgery," he said.
"These patients have become reliant on excess drugs for pain relief and their quality of life is severely impacted."
Dr Black said he is now for the first time in his career recommending that patients choose the private route.
"If they have family members I say to them if there's any way they can 'bunch up' and raise the money between them to give that person a better quality of life in their final years."
Dr Michael McKenna, a GP based in west Belfast, questioned why the funding could not be redirected to provide operations at home.
"Waiting lists are the longest I can ever remember and people are dealing with chronic pain on a daily basis," he said.
"It is a rather bizarre situation that the system endorses sending patients abroad when the number of private operations being carried out in Northern Ireland shows we can do this.
"Are there ways we can use this funding locally and plug the capacity gap?"