Health Minister Leo Varadkar has claimed the "cycle of cuts in health" is over after the first budget rise for the sector since the dying days of the Celtic Tiger.
Following seven years of fiscal attacks on the system, the senior cabinet member has revealed a budget plan which will see year-on-year funding levels increase by €305m, bringing the total budget to €13.079bn.
Under the plan, which is set to be further outlined next month as part of more detailed discussions with the HSE:
* Emergency department charges, prescription fees and medical card income thresholds all being frozen;
* €25m has been made available to tackle the bed-blockers issue;
* Funds have been made available to roll out BreastCheck services for women in their 60s and the under-6s free GP care plan for next year;
* Hospitals have been told they can effectively side-step the recruitment ban to help address chronic staff shortages in the system.
In addition, once-off measures including a €130m saving from procurement and non-patient service reductions, and the provision of €220m owed to the Sate by insurance firms, will also bring badly needed resources to the sector.
Even taking account of a likely €500m-plus overspend this year, the situation means the system is for once the subject of some good news — with spending for 2016 and 2017 provisionally set at further rises of €13.25bn and €13.29bn.
However, despite the positive tone yesterday, patient and medical groups remained critical of the steps, warning that a series of potential pitfalls have yet to be addressed or ignored completely.
“The cycle of cuts in health has come to an end,” Mr Varadkar said after announcing the “realistic” budget he believes can help the system to recover from “the damage that was done in recent years”.
“This is a good deal. It’s challenging, but it’s realistic and it is achievable,” said Mr Varadkar. “We didn’t get everything we asked but we made a very big step forward in terms of reversing some of the damage that was done, putting out health budget back on a sustainable footing.”
Despite achieving a remarkable turnaround in attitude compared to last year’s health budget — when then health minister James Reilly said the coming 12 months would be the toughest yet faced by the sector — Mr Varadkar was heavily criticised by patient and medical groups for failing to resolve a series of ongoing problems.
Responding to the initial Government figures, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said the money available “will not be sufficient” to address “major shortcomings”, including waiting list difficulties, the “wholly inadequate” budget this year and the need to re-open “2,000 hospital beds”.
The IMO questioned whether the funding rise is really a rise when overruns from this year are taken into account, adding that waiting lists, ward closures, and cancelled procedures will “continue unaltered” unless funding allocation is more clearly spelled out.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved