January was the worst month for emergency department overcrowding since the Government came to power, and the second-worst month ever, according to an analysis of trolley figures by The Irish Times.
The bad news for Minister for Health Leo Varadkar continued on Wednesday when 523 people were waiting for admission to hospital, the fifth worst figure since the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation began counting trolley numbers.
Six of the eight worst trolley counts have been recorded since the beginning of the New Year, the analysis of INMO data shows.
Numbers peaked at 601 on January 6th last and have remained stubbornly high since.
Overcrowding now is worse than it was during Mary Harney's tenure as minister for health, when the issue was declared a national emergency. It is also worse than it was when Dr James Reilly was minister, although the upward trend had already begun before he left the job last May.
The INMO changed its Trolleywatch count in March 2013 to include extra beds placed in wards rather than just the emergency department, and this has served to push up the figures. However, all beds counted are occupied by patients awaiting admission to hospital.
Overcrowding on Wednesday was worst in University Hospital Limerick, with 46 patients awaiting admission. It was followed by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, with 40 people on trolleys and Beaumont Hospital in Dublin with 38.
Meanwhile, the number of people waiting for a nursing home place under the Fair Deal scheme has climbed from 1,071 in mid-December to 1,313 in the middel of last month. Delays in access long-term care under the scheme are one of the main reasons for the current hospital overcrowding crisis.
Independent TD Denis Naughten, who obtained the figures, said the Fair Deal backlog was causing serious financial hardship for older people and their families, some of whom have to find the money to pay for the nursing home for the first 11 weeks. It was also causing chaos in hospitals.
The HSE says the high trolley numbers in January are due to an increase in admissions and delayed discharges of patients, as well as a rise in flu and Novovirus cases. In some hospitals, an inability to attract and retain medical staff has added to the difficulties.
The extra spending incurred by hospitals in efforts to relieve the overcrowding will place severe pressure on the HSE budget this year, and the financial situation will be further challenged by the Minister for Health’s commitment to ramp up inpatient activity to make up for the thousands of appointments and procedures cancelled over the past month.