Northern Ireland

Michelle O'Neill: What's in the new health minister's in-tray?

Michelle O'Neill is Northern Ireland's new Health Minister
Image caption Michelle O'Neill is Northern Ireland's new Health Minister

So, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill is Northern Ireland's new Health Minister.

While the appointment is a fresh face to the Department of Health that's where the novelty ends.

The issues awaiting her in the departmental in-tray are familiar and urgent.

Tackling hospital waiting lists must be a priority for the new minister. But the "waiting list" coffers pot is empty bar the few crumbs left over from the last think tank management meeting.

At the latter part of the year it emerged that around 400,000 people were on some sort of hospital waiting list.

While a £40 million cash injection was announced in November to tackle the problem, the BBC understands that somewhere in the region of around £23 million was actually spent.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Waiting times for outpatient appointments have increased

That's because the health trusts weren't given enough time to plan how to spend the money including organising the hundreds of thousands of patients to be seen for appointments, or organise the necessary surgery or treatment plans required.

The independent sector did perform a majority of the operations due to the fact they are more efficient, based on a smaller site with dedicated teams ready to spring into action.

Supporting greater use of the independent sector goes against the grain of Sinn Féin's ethos.

Michelle O'Neill will be urged by health professionals to allow for better planning of budgets instead of limping from one monitoring round to another.

Image caption Health trusts say they were not given enough time to plan how to spend their budget

Then, there's the plan for reform, led by Spanish health expert Professor Raphael Bengoa.

Professor Bengoa will chair a panel which will help shape the future of health care in Northern Ireland.

The new health minister's approach to that may well frame her term and set the benchmark by which she'll be measured when her time is up.

Reform needs to be immediate which could mean the closure of hospitals or at the very least the shutting of their emergency departments.

It will be interesting to see if the DUP maintain their recent consensus on taking politics out of health.

Image copyright PROF RAFAEL BENGOA
Image caption Professor Bengoa will chair a panel which will help shape the future of health care in Northern Ireland

There are the contentious issues - what to do with abortion legislation and the controversial ban on gay men donating blood.

On the former, Sinn Féin are on record saying they want the extension of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. The DUP are not in favour of any change.

On the issue of gay men donating blood, Sinn Féin have long called for the ban to be lifted.

In his last weeks in office, Simon Hamilton the former health minister, announced a range of measures including extra money for autism, GP training places and an air ambulance service.

In order to fund many of these new services and facilities, Michelle O'Neill will have to find the funding in order to deliver.

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