More than 270,000 patients in Northern Ireland may be entitled to private healthcare paid for by the Government if a landmark legal case succeeds, it can be revealed.
ealth officials are due in the High Court this week to face accusations they are failing to provide an effective service in relation to Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting list crisis.
The case is being brought by two patients – May Kitchen, who paid for cataract surgery to save her sight after being told she would wait 42 months for the operation on the health service, and Eileen Wilson, who has suspected multiple sclerosis and has been waiting three and a half years for a hospital appointment to confirm the diagnosis.
A hearing to seek leave for a judicial review into the experiences of the two women is scheduled to take place at the High Court on Thursday.
Ciaran O’Hare, the solicitor representing both women, said the case could “open the floodgates” for hundreds of thousands of patients languishing on hospital waiting lists. The case, which has the backing of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, argues that the women’s “human rights have been breached through the excessive delays” endured by patients in Northern Ireland.
Ms Kitchen and Ms Wilson are challenging failings by the health service to provide effective medical services in Northern Ireland and to provide people on waiting lists with effective access to treatment outside the region.
Mr O’Hare, from McIvor Farrell Solicitors Ltd, said: “I believe that if the court provides my clients with the desired declarations, this will have systemic ramifications for all those people in Northern Ireland currently suffering on terribly long waiting lists. If the court makes a declaration that the current situation is unlawful, that puts severe pressure on the Department of Health and trusts to sort this out.
“It could potentially open the floodgates to anyone who has been waiting over a period of time, so they are entitled to access healthcare outside of Northern Ireland or through the independent sector.
“In short, my clients hope that their cases will bring about positive change to what is a broken and unacceptable health care system.”
While the case does not specify an acceptable waiting time for treatment, it does refer to the disparity in service between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
In England, health trusts are fined if a patient waits longer than a year for an appointment. As a result, it is normal practice for health trusts to send patients to other hospitals when an appointment cannot be offered within a year.
In Northern Ireland, Department of Health targets state that no patient should wait longer than 52 weeks for inpatient or outpatient appointments, or longer than 26 weeks for a diagnostic test.
However, health trusts here are not subject to financial penalties when they fail to meet targets.
There are currently more than 201,000 people in Northern Ireland waiting longer than a year for inpatient treatment or a first hospital appointment, and almost 72,000 more people waiting longer than 26 weeks for a diagnostic test, meaning trusts may have to offer them alternative appointments or treatment if the judicial review is successful.
Mr O’Hare said this would involve either sending patients outside Northern Ireland or referring them to private clinics, with the health service picking up the cost.
“My clients hope that by obtaining the desired declarations from the court, the respondents will immediately resume to contract out work to private healthcare providers,” he said.
The Department of Health said it cannot comment on ongoing legal cases.
— to www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk