Increased funding to tackle decades-old capacity issues in the health sector may be the only silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to experts.
An extra €4bn in funding for the health service was announced in Tuesday’s Budget.
The funding will go towards providing an extra 1,146 acute beds, almost 70 extra critical care beds, and 1,250 community beds, including 600 new rehabilitation beds across Ireland.
The Budget will also provide for 16,000 health sector posts, five million extra homecare hours, €100m for disability services, €50m for new drugs, €38m for mental health, €25m for Healthy Ireland and the National Drugs Strategy and €5 million for the development of community based dementia supports Funding will also aim to address waiting lists with approximately 100,000 additional inpatient and day care procedures through investment in public hospitals, further use of the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) and spare capacity in private hospitals.
Meanwhile, it was also revealed on Tuesday that Ireland has signed up to EU advance purchase agreements for potential Covid-19 vaccines.
Announcing the health budget, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and Cork TD Michael McGrath (FF) said:
“Our rapid move to telephone triages, online prescribing, shorter hospital stays and innovative community care measures, have also unlocked a path forward for us in modernising our public health system, and we must move forward along this path in 2021 and over future years.”
Health Economist at University College Cork, Dr Brian Turner, welcomed the investment aimed at increasing capacity in terms of both beds and staff.
“If there’s any silver lining to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, this could be it - that capacity is finally starting to be increased,” he said.
“If this is followed through on, it would certainly be a positive to come out of the pandemic if such a thing is possible.
“The pandemic has enabled the Government to loosen the purse strings a bit, when that appeared to hold them back in recent years,” he added.
“There was a commitment to increase capacity but when it came to actually providing funding for it, there seemed to be a bit of reluctance.
“Now, they have not only an excuse to do it but a very, very good reason to.”
IMO The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) welcomed a number of initiatives in Budget 2021 but union president Dr Padraig McGarry said it is “tragic” that it took a pandemic to see such much-needed investment given priority.
“While we absolutely welcome any additional investment this cannot be once-off expenditure and must continue to improve year on year until we have the capacity we need,” he added.
The IMO welcomed the investment in trauma, maternity and cancer services, saying it is “critical” to providing a health service that can deliver both Covid and non-Covid care.
However, the union expressed “grave concerns” around the waiting lists and the ongoing policy of diverting money to the private system through the NTPF.
“We must develop a sustainable funding model, accompanied by appropriate staffing numbers to deliver care within our public health services,” the union said.
Meanwhile, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) welcomed the funding but warned it must be spent well.
“The extra four billion is not only a necessary response to Covid, but recognition of the indispensable work that our members do in the health service every single day,” said INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha.
“Health funding cannot be like a tap – switched on and off from year to year.
“We need to see multi-annual, clear commitments to building capacity, getting staffing right, and moving to a universal healthcare model,” she added.
“The money needs to be spent well.
“There are clear funding needs in the short term for Covid, but the government cannot take its eye off the ball for medium and long-term reforms.” The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) welcomed funding allocated towards the introduction of a number of national strategies, including the National Cancer Strategy, the National Maternity Strategy and the National Trauma Strategy.
However, IHCA president professor Alan Irvine emphasised the importance of addressing consultant shortages.
“Addressing the consultant deficit is a three-legged stool of funding, enabling legislation to reverse the damaging 2012 decision in full, and agreement,” he said.
“On all three, we are finally seeing a chink of light.
“There is no time to lose given winter is upon us, the added pressure of the pandemic, and over 840,000 people continue to wait for care.”