The highest health budget ever was announced as part of Budget 2017 on Tuesday, however concern has been expressed that this is still not enough to tackle waiting lists and deal with increased patient demand.
A total of €14.6 billion has been secured for the health budget next year, an increase of €977 million on this year's figure.
"Budget 2017 will deliver the highest health budget ever, demonstrating the Government's commitment to investing the gains from a recovering economy in a better health service.
"Within these increased resources, we can plan for the challenge of increased demand from a growing and ageing population, and begin some significant new developments which will, over time, deliver real improvements for patients on waiting lists, children with disabilities and older people," commented Minister for Health, Simon Harris.
However, according to the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA), this may not be sufficient. It insisted that Budget 2017 has failed to address the ‘critical capacity constraints' that have arisen in the health service following years of cutbacks.
IHCA president, Dr Tom Ryan, insisted that cuts of €1.7 billion in health sector capital expenditure since 2008 ‘have resulted in an acute health infrastructure that is crumbling, with many hospitals attempting to treat patients with inadequate capacity and equipment that is increasingly obsolete'.
As part of Budget 2017, the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) is to receive €20 million to tackle waiting lists, particularly those who have been waiting longest. However, Dr Ryan described this funding as ‘at best, a stop gap measure'.
"It is disappointing that the Budget fails to seriously address the root causes of the problems, which are inadequate acute and ICU bed capacity and insufficient operating capacity. These constraints are not only leading to longer waiting lists, but they are resulting in the cancellation of essential surgery with increased frequency," he commented.
This was echoed by the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), which said that the Budget offers no resources or proposals to tackle the inadequate number of consultants in the health service and the increasing trend of young doctors emigrating, taking their skills to other countries.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) also noted that while Budget 2017 proposes to recruit an additional 1,000 nurses, no special measures to achieve this have been announced. As a result, the public health service will continue to be unable to compete with private hospitals and UK employers, who are offering recruitment incentives.
Meanwhile, the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) has also expressed its disappointment that the prescritpion levy appears here to stay.
Currently, people with medical cards must pay €2.50 per prescription item, up to a maximum of €25 per person/family.
The IPU had called on the Government to begin phasing out this levy from next year, or at the very least, excluding those most vulnerable from having to pay the fee, such as homeless people and those with intellectual disabilities.
However, just one change was made as part of Budget 2017 - the monthly levy will be capped at €20 for those over the age of 70, a reduction of €5.
"When you consider the commitments made last May in the Programme for Government, that the Government would ‘reduce prescription charges for medical card holders', it is clear that today's announcement is only a token, and a very disappointing response to that commitment," commented IPU president, Daragh Connolly.
In the area of mental health, €35 million has been allocated towards new services in 2017, in addition to the €35 million provided in 2016. However, according to Mental Health Reform, which campaigns for better health services, ‘the proof will be in the delivery'.
"The Minister for Mental Health needs to ensure that funding allocated in 2017 is released in January and spent during the year on the services intended. We also call on the HSE to set out in their Service Plan the detail of how the announced allocation of €35 million in development funding will be spent and by when.
"We need to see service users' and family members' priorities reflected in specific, time-lined actions in next year's service plan. Most urgently, the HSE needs to set out how and when it will ensure that a seven-day-a-week direct access mental health service is available in every catchment area with outside-of-hours specialist mental health support available by phone, so that fewer people are forced to seek crisis mental health support in busy Emergency Departments," commented Mental Health Reform director, Dr Shari McDaid.
Meanwhile, in other Budget news, the increase of 50c in the cost of a pack of cigarettes was welcomed by the Irish Cancer Society. It said that this sends a ‘strong signal' to the tobacco industry that the Government is serious about Ireland becoming a tobacco-free country by 2025.
"The price hike, which will mean the most popular priced cigarettes will cost over €11 a packet, will encourage people to stop smoking and ultimately save lives," the society added.
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