Northern Ireland's health service 'urgently needs £31m to reduce waiting lists'
Northern Ireland's struggling health service needs an immediate £31 million to help reduce the thousands of patients waiting longer than a year for treatment, the health minister has said.
Michelle O'Neill said she is confident the money can be secured, despite the political crisis at Stormont and the fact no budget has been agreed.
Currently an estimated 40,000 people are waiting more that 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment. Around 8,000 patients are waiting longer than a year for day care inpatient treatment.
Outlining her vision on how to transform health and social care services in the region, Mrs O'Neill said £31m would ensure that by March 2018 nobody would be waiting longer than 52 weeks for first outpatient appointments or day care inpatient treatment.
She insisted that the plan for reforming the system, which is in response to a report by Professor Rafael Bengoa, was not hypothetical, even though there is uncertainty over the health budget.
"That money needs triggered as soon as possible. I cannot fathom why anyone would not support this as a plan," Mrs O'Neill said.
She added: "Waiting lists are totally unacceptable to me. We need to deal with the waiting list backlog and long-term transformation (of the health service)."
Bolstering primary care is another priority, Mrs O'Neill said.
There have been concerns that the minister's plan to tackle excessive waiting times as part of a radical health system overhaul had stalled because of political disarray at Stormont and the fact a budget has not been agreed.
Last month the health minister was accused of "abdicating her responsibilities" after it emerged that emergency department waiting times across the north have continued to increase.
Almost 900 patients were left waiting for treatment for more than 12 hours in December, Department of Health statistics show, more than triple the number in December 2015.
Ministerial targets say no patient attending an emergency care department should wait longer than 12 hours, but the Department of Health's latest statistics for the region show that in December 887 patients waited longer than 12 hours to be either treated and discharged or admitted.
The Department of Health said in January there had been a 5.7% increase in attendances the previous month.
A total of 62,094 people attended emergency departments in December, an increase of 3,360 from the previous year.
The statistics also showed that in December only 65.4% of patients were treated and discharged or admitted within four hours. The target is 95%.
Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson hit out at Mrs O'Neill and said she "should be ashamed of herself".
At the start of the year patients were advised to avoid emergency departments unless their need was urgent as pressures continued to mount.