New figures showing that more than 75,000 hospital appointments have been cancelled over the past three years reveal the pressure on the health service from cutbacks and growing patient numbers.
The Health Service Executive says the cancellations are mainly due to closure of wards for cost-containment measures and a lack of capacity caused by emergency admissions.
At least 25,317 day-case and 50,433 inpatient appointments were cancelled in 2010, 2011 and the first 10 months of this year, the figures supplied by the HSE show. The total is, in fact, higher, since about 13 of the 40 hospitals do not supply figures regularly to the HSE.
Sinn Féin health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the figures reflected a system struggling with the demand-led emergency workload after staff budget cutbacks. “They simply fly in the face of Minister for Health James Reilly’s so-called reform agenda,” he said.
The Irish Patients’ Association expressed concern that the health of some could deteriorate before new appointments were fixed.
“The cancellation of appointments, especially at short notice, can cause huge disruption for patients,” spokesman Stephen McMahon said.
“In some cases, people will have had to make arrangements for the care of a family member and travel long distances to fulfil the appointment.”
He said that, separate from any cancellations, over 350,000 patients were on waiting lists for a first hospital appointment. The data for this year shows 6,311 day-case and 12,772 inpatient appointments were cancelled to the end of October. The figures also reveal huge variations in cancellations in different hospitals.
St James’s Hospital in Dublin accounts for almost one-third of the total, with 21,782 cancelled day-case and inpatient cancellations over the three-year period. The vast majority were for inpatients .
Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, which treats sick children, accounted for 18,780 cancellations. In contrast, only 140 cancellations are recorded for Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, Co Galway.
Dr Reilly is due to unveil his plans shortly for a radical reorganisation of the health service through the grouping of hospitals in different regions.
However, critics claim the process will see smaller hospitals downgraded by grouping them with larger hospitals.
Publication of Dr Reilly’s proposals has been delayed until after Christmas.
The cuts were first announced five weeks ago as part of an overall initiative aimed at generating more than €130 million in savings. However, implementation was largely put on hold in many parts of the State pending further assessment by the Department of Health and at political level.
The HSE said last night that about €8 million in spending on home help hours would be cut between now and the end of the year, adding that it intended to minimise the impact of the cuts.
“Decisions in relation to the provision of home help hours will continue to be based on a review of individual needs, and no current recipient of this service and who has an assessed need for the service will be without a service,” it said in a statement.
The amount to be cut from the home help budget under the announcement made last night is less than the €10.8 million reduction in spending it announced originally last month, which would have resulted in some 600,000 home help hours being cut, on top of a 500,000-hour cut imposed earlier this year. The effects of the reduced spending cut was not available last night.
A HSE spokesman said the measures to reduce home help hours were being implemented by the regions over recent weeks, although the total amount to be cut was less than initially announced.
However, senior health service figures had repeatedly told The Irish Times in recent weeks that the cuts had largely been put on hold following the Government’s U-turn on cuts for the disabled some weeks ago.
The HSE said last night there were 11,000,000 home-help hours provided annually, with a budget of €195 million.
Yesterday the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children called for a halt to cuts in home help.
Sinn Féin Health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said he had the unanimous backing of the Oireachtas committee for his motion calling on Minister for Health James Reilly not to proceed with cuts to home help and homecare.
Home helps are planning to protest about the cuts in Dublin later this month.
The HSE is expected to begin intensifying the implementation of plans to reduce the number of homecare packages. However, this is likely to be at a lower level than the 200 originally announced.
The HSE said it had a statutory responsibility to live within the budget voted by the Oireachtas. “In this context, the HSE developed a range of proposals for discussion which would reduce spending and yield cash between now and the end of 2012.”
“It is a priority for the HSE to minimise the impact on patients and clients of any spending reductions. Many of the proposals therefore focused on areas that do not have a direct patient impact such as furniture, education and training, office expenses, laptops and PCs, travel and subsistence etc.”