Ireland’s health service is being forced to “do less with less” after suffering a massive €2.7bn worth of cuts since the recession commenced.
The figure emerges in a new study examining the reality of dwindling HSE budgets, cost-saving initiatives and “probity” drives on frontline patient care.
Conducted by Trinity College researchers under a Health Research Board grant, the three-year study found since the economic crisis began, the eye-catching fortune has been slashed from the system, forcing officials to focus on keeping services running rather than “headline priorities in the Programme for Government”.
Among the main areas to be hit have been funding for staff, chronic delays in infrastructure, cuts to discretionary medical cards, home help supports and increased prescription and hospital charges for patients.
There has also been a significant drop in the number of inpatients, day cases and outpatients for hospitals, indicating the Government’s key policy of greater access to care is failing to be met.
Despite claims to the contrary by the Department of Health, researchers said the reality points to the health service increasingly having to “do less with less”.
And with Health Minister Dr James Reilly admitting after last autumn’s budget that, for health at least, there is no end to austerity in sight, researchers warned the continuing cutbacks are putting people’s lives at risk.
“The Irish system demonstrated reasonable resilience in the early years of austerity, with some good efficiency gains,” research team member Dr Steve Thomas noted. “However, as Ireland experiences prolonged austerity, recent indicators demonstrate a system under increasing pressure with unavoidable cuts and increased rationing risking patient care.
“During austerity Government has quietly shifted the burden of paying for healthcare back onto the sick and the elderly.
“Increased charges and lower subsidies now amount to almost €100 per person more for each year for healthcare.”
The study said there was significant hope within the health service when “a new Government came to power in March 2011 with the most radical proposals for health reform in the history of the Irish State”.
However, despite the ambitious targets the public is facing a clearly different situation which appears to be continuing the previous coalition’s cutbacks.
-2.7bn cut from the system since 2009;
-12,000 less HSE staff than when the recession began;
-A 21,000 inpatient drop and 30,000 day case drop between 2012 and 2014.
-A near €100m cut to the cost of the drugs payment reimbursement scheme. This fall has been caused by changes on who is eligible to receive the support, which is “in effect a direct transfer of costs from the State onto patients”.
-A trebling of people waiting over six and 12 months for inpatient and day-case hospital treatment;
-941 less beds in the public hospital system;
-And the loss of two million home help hours a year, from 11 million in 2006 to nine million at the end of last year.
While Dr Reilly has previously lauded the reduction in Ireland’s emergency department crisis since he took office, the research also raised concerns over the trolley count issue.
The independent study said that while the Minister is correct to say there has been a 36% drop in patients put on trolleys since 2011, when the current rate is compared to 2008 the fall stands at just 3.6%.
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