The Government will use its “safety net arrangement” with private hospitals to deal with the backlog in non-Covid healthcare, the Dáil has been told.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the “more sustained” current contract with all 18 private hospitals in the State gives the HSE options to deal with backlogs in services including cancer treatment, elective surgeries and outpatient appointments and the health service is implementing a plan for the prioritisation and restoration of services
More services remained open during the second and third Covid-19 surges than in the first wave “demonstrating how we have adapted as a health service”, he said.
And he said that despite the pandemic challenges “the number of Covid patients with symptomatic breast disease seen at clinics amounted to 88 per cent of the 2019 figure”.
Outlining comparative year-on-year figures he said that in the first 10 weeks of this year overall GP referrals “amount to 110 per cent of 2020 activity. Breast referrals are very high at 122 per cent of 2020 activity, lung is 64 per cent, and prostate 56 per cent”.
The Taoiseach added: “Surgery numbers to the end of November last are at 77 per cent of the 2019 level. The number of patients receiving chemotherapy is at 88 per cent of 2019 levels and radiotherapy is more than 90 per cent of 2019 levels.”
Mr Martin was responding to Independent TD Noel Grealish who warned that the Covid-19 pandemic "has turned what was a crisis in our health service into a disaster".
The Galway West TD called for a special task force to be established to “come up with a plan of concrete action and have real power to clear any obstacles” to deal with a backlog of almost 900,000 people on waiting lists for treatment in hospitals, up almost 12 per cent on this time last year. More than 600,000 are waiting for their first hospital outpatient consultation and “shockingly more than 280,000 of those have been waiting for a year or more to be seen for their first appointment”.
Mr Grealish said the NHS in England is serving a population 11 times greater than that of Ireland and 5 per cent of its total waiting list is comprised of patients waiting more than a year compared with 45 per cent of patients in Ireland.
He said that everyone of those patients “is a mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother who, in many cases, desperately needs help to ease pain and suffering”.
He noted the more than €1 billion the ESRI estimates it would cost to bring hospital services “back even to the so-called normal levels of pre-Covid times” but he said “regardless of the cost, it simply cannot be delayed”.
Mr Martin stressed that the HSE is implementing a plan for the prioritisation and restoration of services, which he said was “informed by data modelling” and involved three phases the first of which operates from March to June, the second runs from July to September and the third from October to December.
An additional €240 million has been provided for an access to care fund, with €210 million allocated to the HSE and €30 million to the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) which allows for treatment in both private and public hospitals "to address capacity issues in acute hospitals and waiting lists".
He said by the end of February the NTPF had arranged 3,464 outpatient appointments and more than 4,000 day case treatments.