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10 January 2002 Edition

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Health service need urgent funding

BY JOHN KELLY, SINN FÉIN ASSEMBLY MEMBER FOR MID ULSTER


Health and Education are a priority. Everyone recognises this. But it has taken the Executive in the Six Counties nearly three years to hear what every man, woman and child has been saying. To a large degree we have to thank the two Sinn Féin Ministers, Bairbre de Brún and Martin McGuinness, for making sure that the Executive has backed words with cash.

But at the same time, ask anyone working in our health service, look at any of the stories in the media, and it is clear that the gross underfunding of the health service for the last 20 years has had a massive life threatening impact, both in the north and also in the 26 Counties.

There are not enough nurses or doctors, bed shortages, outdated equipment and hospitals in need of repair. The accumulation of year on year underfunding has left our health service struggling on a life support system.

When Sinn Féin took the Six-County Health portfolio we knew all of this - so did all of the other political parties, which is why no one else was prepared to take up the challenge. Everyone acknowledges that without money we will not make a difference.

The Finance Minster himself recognised as much in his latest budget when he said that he was only giving the department of health enough money to stand still - nearly £50 million short of what Bairbre de Brún had said she needed to make progress. Our health service needs many more millions.

But we also need a plan. Bairbre de Brún has done something vital to the rebirth of our health service - she has gone out to listen to people who use the health service and all of the different groups who work within it. Like every other department consultation has become a key element in policy making and in reaching decisions. It is this participation in democracy that people voted for when they backed the Good Friday Agreement. If we do not listen then we will not make a difference.

In the rush to deal with the immediate crisis we must not make hasty decisions. There are key decisions that need to be taken - for the long term future of our health service. Part of the current situation is that too many bad decisions have been taken in the past.

It is also important to recognise that the health service has a number of very powerful vested interests who will work against change. But they will have to change. The status quo is unacceptable.

The problems in the health service are very real. Like most elected representatives, I am contacted every day by people who are not getting the level of service they deserve. It's a disgrace that some politicians and in particular but not exclusively from the SDLP should choose to make party political gain out of this suffering. What they ultimately achieve is to undermine the argument for increased expenditure.

Personally, I prefer to be honest with people and highlight the damage that the long term underfunding of our health service and decades of British Tory health policy has done to our health service. In Dublin and London, they have recognised the need to massively increase the money going into the health service. We require nothing less here in the Six Counties.

To make matters worse, much of the new money announced by the British Exchequer for health over the last ten years has not automatically trickled down to the Six Counties. Indeed, it is estimated that the deficit for 1990-2000 comes to a staggering £435 million.

Take all of this together and is crystal clear that we now need to make sure that the Health Minster has the resources she needs to change things.

Documents such 'Priorities for Actions 2001-2002', covering in detail plans for reducing waiting lists, tackling winter pressures and shortages of skilled staff and the restructuring of Primary Care (GPs, District Nurses, Social Workers etc.) which are emerging from the Department of Health indicate that the minister is making progress in developing plans and strategies to get us out of the mess that we have inherited.

Sinn Féin will rise to the challenges and work to create the type of Health Service we all need and demand. The final piece of the jigsaw is finance. As the next spending rounds come around, we need to see other politicians back Bairbre de Brún to ensure that Health is a financial priority.

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