Budget 2017: Health spending increase will help service run to stand still

Claim of biggest budget ever may be a stretch but service given €1bn more than last year

With almost €1 billion extra going in the kitty compared to last year, the health service has little cause for complaint after the purse-strings were loosened more than had been expected. Photograph: Alan Powdrill/Getty Images.

With almost €1 billion extra going in the kitty compared to last year, the health service has little cause for complaint after the purse-strings were loosened more than had been expected. Photograph: Alan Powdrill/Getty Images.

 

With almost €1 billion extra going into the kitty compared to last year, the health service has little cause for complaint after the purse-strings were loosened more than had been expected.

The extra €497 million announced in the budget follows the allocation of an additional €500 million to health earlier in the year, giving an overall increase of 7.4 per cent over last year’s budget.

The Government says that, at €14.6 billion, this is the biggest health budget in the history of the State. Some doubt that claim - in 2008, the Department of Children was in health but the budget for health alone was about €15 billion- but it is a massive sum of money nonetheless.

It would be wiser to introduce reforms - such as those that might be proposed by the Oireachtas committee currently considering the future of healthcare - before throwing more money at the system, but the problems of the health service are too great to allow for delay.

Figures published last Friday show almost 540,000 people are on waiting lists, while 438 people were on hospital trolleys yesterday as the budget details were announced.

Most of the extra money will go on maintaining the existing level of service. The cost of this is rising because demand for many services is increasing, mostly due to the ageing of the population.

Staff costs

Another substantial chunk will go on staff costs. Nurses, like other public sector employees, are edging towards industrial action over pay. Consultants are due €700 million in back money over pay cuts imposed as far back as 2008, unless this is overturned in the courts. A new GP contract is up for negotiation, and this group of doctors will also be demanding their pound of flesh.

How little money is left over can be gauged from the Government’s announcement on prescription charges. The last government bumped the levy up from 50 cent to €2.50 an item. The current programme for government promises to reduce the charge, which penalises the sickest the most.

But instead of cutting the actual charge, the budget proposes to reduce the amount, and the monthly cap, but only for the over-70s.

Another commitment in the programme for government, to extend medical cards to all children in receipt of a domiciliary care allowance, is being implemented at a cost of €10 million.

Arguably, the biggest beneficiary of the boost in health spending will be the Minister himself, Simon Harris. Having already enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon - despite the appalling waiting list and trolley figures - Harris now has enough financial leeway to get through the worst that health can throw at him.

Even a credible performance in Hawkins House will position him well to challenge for the leadership of Fine Gael when Enda Kenny departs.