Northern Ireland

No plans to replace cross-border healthcare scheme, says new Stormont minister

One in three hospital patients in England arriving by ambulance last week had to wait more than half an hour to be handed over to A&E teams
A cross-border health scheme that allowed some Northern Ireland patients to access private healthcare in the Republic will not be continued, the Health Minister has said. (Jeff Moore/PA)

NO plans are in place to restore a cross-border healthcare scheme designed to reduce waiting lists in Northern Ireland, the Health Minister has said.

Before Brexit, the European Union’s Cross-Border Health Directive was used to reimburse Northern Ireland patients who were diagnosed with a clinical need and had to travel to the Republic for private treatment.

It was replaced in June 2021 by the Republic of Ireland Reimbursement Scheme.

Intended to run for a year, the Department of Health extended it with an extra £5m which ran out by September 2022.

Health Minister Robin Swann noted at the time there had been “significant interest” from patients.

With the return of the Stormont Executive, Minister Swann was asked by the SDLP’s Justin McNulty if the scheme would be reinstated.

Responding to a written Assembly question last week, he said this was not possible within the current budget.

“Reducing waiting times for elective access is a key priority for me. Current waiting times are unacceptable, no one should have to wait longer than necessary for the surgery they need,” he said.

“While good progress has been made in tackling waiting times in some areas, there remains much more to be done.

“Within the constraints of existing budgets, I’m committed to taking whatever actions I can to tackle these waiting times and ensure that patients are treated as quickly as possible to ensure best possible outcomes.”

He said the demands across many areas of health and social care in 2022 meant no further money was available for the scheme.

“Any future funding allocation to a similar scheme to help reduce waiting lists will now need to be considered as part of a broader review of resource investment in Waiting List Initiatives.”

The pressure to reduce waiting lists remains one of the top health priorities for Minister Swann alongside settling long-running pay disputes with health workers.

In December, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) said pressure on Northern Ireland’s hospitals had become “unsurmountable” as new figures showed some of the worst figures for waiting times on record.

Department of Health data for that month showed the percentage waiting for the four hours or less target fell below 40% for the first time ever.

Patients waiting 12 hours or longer also increased by 16 times since compared to the same period in 2016.

RCEM Northern Ireland vice chair, Dr Michael Perry, called the knock-on effects of overcrowding and long waits in corridors or ambulance queues “frustrasting, uncomfortable and undignified,” and that it left staff at “breaking point”.

Mr Swann had said he was “acutely aware” of the pressures on emergency departments, and said the current limitations of social care impacted on hospital discharge rates and the patient flow from EDs.

Stating the pressures had built up over many years and could not be quickly fixed, he said progress was still possible by investing in new pathways for urgent care and supporting discharge in order to make the best use of existing hospital capacity.