Plan costing €350m to cut hospital waiting lists ‘challenged’ by Covid surge

Action plan to reduce healthcare waiting lists by 18 per cent was launched five weeks ago

A €350 million plan to cut hospital waiting lists is already “challenged” due to high Covid-19 cases, according to the Health Service Executive (HSE), just five weeks after it was launched.

The recent curtailment of elective care for patients will "negatively impact" the achievement of waiting list reduction targets, HSE chief executive Paul Reid has warned.

There continues to be challenges in the provision of scheduled care for patients due to the most recent surge in Covid cases in hospital and a surge in emergency department attendances, Mr Reid told the Oireachtas health committee on Wednesday.

The 2022 waiting list action plan was launched on February 25th with the aim of reducing waiting lists for scheduled care by 18 per cent this year. This would bring the number of people on waiting lists to the lowest point in five years.

Under the Sláintecare plan for the reform of healthcare, no patients should have to wait more than 10 weeks for an outpatient appointment and 12 weeks for an inpatient or daycase procedure.

Under current plans, by the end of this year, 98 per cent of all patients will wait less than 18 months for their first outpatient appointment and 12 months for their procedure.

Progress on waiting list reduction and other Sláintecare reforms is "largely on track", Department of Health secretary general Robert Watt told the committee, but the recent surge in Covid cases and associated staff shortages, along with increased demand at emergency departments, "will undoubtedly impact on work in this area".

Regional health bodies

In relation to the creation of regional health bodies, which were announced by Government earlier this week, Mr Watt said his preference initially was to set these up on an administrative basis. The six bodies would not have separate boards or legal status, and the HSE would remain the employer of staff.

This option was endorsed by Cabinet in its decision this week, he confirmed.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the approach being taken by the department was "not reform" and wouldn't work.

The new regional bodies would have no board, no legal underpinning, while the HSE would remain “at the centre” of health provision and would have all corporate functions, he said.

“There are no grounds for anybody to think that things are going to be done differently as a result of this,” said Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall. “This is just more of the same from the HSE.”

Mr Watt told the committee talks with medical unions over a new consultant contract were put “in abeyance” last December after failing to reach a conclusion.

A new independent chair of the talks will not be appointed to replace senior counsel Marguerite Bolger, who has since been appointed a judge of the High Court, he indicated.

Since then, the department has been engaged with consultant representatives about a new process, Mr Watt said. He declined to set a target date for completion of the talks.