Department of Health to ask public what cuts it should make as waiting lists soar
HEALTH chiefs have called for "sustained and substantial investment" after the latest hospital waiting times revealed nearly 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first appointment with a consultant.
The worsening statistics - 23,500 more than the previous year - have been branded "utterly appalling".
More than a third of patients (138,647) have waited for more than a year, breaching official targets for no one to wait longer than 52 weeks.
There have also been rises in the numbers of patients waiting for a diagnostic test, with more than a quarter (35,519) waiting more than 26 weeks.
The Department of Health said in an unusually vehement statement that it "shares the widespread frustration and concern at NI's hospital waiting times", saying it "cannot spend money it does not have".
"We have been clear that substantial and sustained investment will be required to address the waiting time backlog.
"Financial pressures over successive years have created this backlog. With the overall health budget constrained, limited funding has been available from 2014 to suppress waiting time growth.
"The NI health budget continues to face significant pressures. At the same time, there are many competing demands for additional spending across different parts of the health and social care system.
"As the department has said many times, it cannot spend money it does not have."
It suggested it will now start asking the public what cuts it should make.
"The department is examining options to facilitate public engagement on budgetary choices. The health service belongs to us all and everyone has a stake in decisions on funding priorities and making the best use of limited resources."
Alliance health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw said the waiting times are "utterly appalling", blaming "political breakdown" - and "the DUP and Sinn Féin" in particular - for the crisis.
"Some vital services are in effect not provided at all,” she said.
"The figures in every area are shocking. The strain caused to patients and carers is causing further harm to people's basic well-being."
Ms Bradshaw said "those with means" are turning to private health care "meaning the basic premise of the NHS - that all people should be treated the same regardless of wealth - is being breached".
"The health service has already reached the point of fundamentally failing the population, despite the best efforts of those working above and beyond the call of duty within it.