Wells: Is there a £70m shortfall in health system or is it worse?

The Health Minister is expected to face tough questions about his department’s deepening cash crisis when he appears in front of the Assembly’s health committee today.

At last week’s meeting, members expressed outrage at learning details of proposed cutbacks, including the possible closure of up to 150 beds in the Belfast Trust, through the media.

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey has already approved a swathe of cost-cutting measures across all six health trusts — which has seen numerous beds axed — particularly in psychiatric, maternity and geriatric services across Northern Ireland, but further radical cuts are in the pipeline as the trusts slide further into the red.

Contingency plans by the trusts containing further proposals to recover deficits have been submitted to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and these are currently under consideration.

A spokesman from the Department last night said there is no deadline for a decision on the proposals.

Details of the proposals have so far not been released to the health committee and they are expected to press Michael McGimpsey and other health chiefs for clarity when they appear at Stormont at a special day-long evidence session.

Ahead of today’s meeting, chair of the committee Jim Wells said: “We want total clarity on where we stand. Is the media correct? Is there a £70m shortfall, or is the situation worse?

“The Minister has all the proposals, so there is no reason why he can’t give us the information we want. We have a right to know exactly what is going on. We asked the Minister to make a statement about the issue on Monday and he refused and I submitted a priority written question and the Speaker wouldn’t allow it.

“If the Minister comes to this meeting and provides the answers we need, we will be quite reasonable, but if he doesn’t there will be some very pointed questions aimed at him.”

William McKee, chief executive of Belfast Health & Social Care Trust, and Wendy Galbraith, director of finance at the trust, are due to give evidence on Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) efficiency savings.

Representatives from the Southern Health & Social Care Trust, made up of acting chief executive Mairead McAlinden, Gillian Rankin, director of older people’s services and primary care, Francis Rice, director of mental health & learning disability, and Stephen McNally, acting director of finance, are also due to present details about CSR.

In particular, sparks are expected to fly between Iris Robinson and Mr McGimpsey.

The exchair of the health committee has been outspoken in her criticism of the way the Health Minister has handled his budget.

The controversial DUP MP clashed with union leaders at last week’s evidence session, when she accused them of being cheerleaders for Mr McGimpsey.