Health Minister Leo Varadkar has conceded thousands of planned surgeries were cancelled in January in an effort to cope with the daily crisis of overcrowding in emergency departments (EDs).
In an interview on RTÉ radio, Mr Varadkar said he couldn’t give “an exact number yet” but that it was “a couple of thousand”.
Defending the cancellations, he said it was necessary because “patient safety comes first, and given the level of overcrowding, it had to be done”. To make up lost ground, Mr Varadkar said they will be looking at ditching the traditional practice of closing wards during the summer “to catch up on elective activity”.
However Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) general secretary Liam Doran said if wards were to remain open then staff to man those wards would need to be in place.
Mr Doran said they were still waiting for a “coherent response” from the Department of Health to the INMO call for an immediate nurse recruitment campaign.
Nurses in the midwest, Naas Hospital, and Mullingar are still scheduled to take industrial action on Monday week if ED staffing shortages are not addressed. Planned industrial action at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin has been called off following negotiations at the Labour Relations Commission and the promise of additional nurses in the ED.
Mr Doran said trolley numbers in EDs remain high — at 388 yesterday compared to 291 on the same day last year — despite curtailment of elective activity.
Mr Varadkar conceded ED overcrowding “will need constant attention throughout the year”.
Outlining his priorities for 2015 yesterday, Mr Varadkar said they included reducing outpatient waiting times so that by year-end no one will be waiting more than 15 months.
Mr Varadkar said he also wants to reduce the number of delayed discharges — where patients fit for discharge remain in hospital due to the absence of alternative care — to 500 by year end. He said funding around Fair Deal, the nursing home support scheme, was an issue, but claimed the waiting time for Fair Deal was down from 15-16 weeks to “about 11”. He said reducing it further was “a matter of money” and that they were “scrounging around within the health budget” to see if they could find more funds. Fears the problem will be exacerbated if Hiqa, the health watchdog, starts refusing nursing home registration to those not making the grade were downplayed by Mr Varadkar, who said “they are not going to be shut down and the people evicted, that’s not going to happen”.
He said he believed if they can come up with a “credible funding plan” then they could work with Hiqa to ensure units found wanting were either upgraded or replaced on a phased basis.
In relation to a shortage of consultants, Mr Varadkar said they expected the results next week of an Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) ballot on improved pay scales for new consultants.
Negotiations with the IMO on free GP care for under sixes and over-70s, as the first plank of introducing universal healthcare, are continuing, and he was hopeful, but not definite, of getting it over the line this year.
He said they were also working on encouraging more people to retain or take up private health insurance by not increasing stamp duty on insurance premiums and by bringing in lifetime community rating from May 1.
“If you are not in the system by the age of 35, if you don’t take out insurance by May, then you will risk having your premium loaded. I think that will bring in a lot of people as well,” he said.
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