I am delighted to be given the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate on health. It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to contribute to a debate on health issues on behalf of my constituents of Kildare North with a view to highlighting areas in the health service where there are significant opportunities for improvement. Before getting to the main points of my contribution, I wish to set in context the points I will make. The health of the nation and the state of the health services available to the citizens always should be on the agenda of public representatives and of this House. No matter how much money is spent on the health services and no matter how good are the health professionals, there will always be a requirement for more resources for the health services. As the population ages, new medical procedures become available and new medicines are developed, the health service will always be in the spotlight and it is Members’ duty to ensure it remains there.
Throughout my relatively short career in public life, I have witnessed year in and year out the adversarial approach adopted by politicians on health policy with the Government claiming it is always right and the Opposition claiming the Government policies are not adequate to address the health issues facing the country. Opposition parties must provide an effective challenge to Government policy when it is needed and the Government must defend its policies when it passionately believes they are the right ones. However, the people on waiting lists for vital health procedures will not forgive the politicians if they do not develop a new approach to the formation of health polices, namely, to have open discussions in this House on health policies in which each Deputy’s input is sought and all political parties are allowed to have their say. Often the best policies are achieved by collaboration with others and all Deputies should be given the opportunity to have their input. I also believe the great work of thousands of employees in the health service must be recognised. Each day, thousands of health professionals provide invaluable care to many patients who use the health service. In the heated debates that often take place inside and outside this House on health policy and resources for the health service, their work, dedication and professionalism often get ignored. Many people who gain access to the health service are full of praise for the workers there and it is important to recognise their vital contribution and I am delighted to acknowledge their work today.
It is only fair to acknowledge the significant improvements that have taken place in cardiac treatment and the cancer care services over the past 15 to 20 years. As Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Micheál Martin brought forward health policies that had a long-term benefit for the community as a whole, as demonstrated by the cardiac national treatment services and the cancer care services. In common with all Members in this House, health is a constant issue at my weekly clinics. Access to vital health procedures is a challenge, waiting lists are increasing and securing home care for the elderly is a constant struggle for many older people. Moreover, vital services for children are starved of resources and for those who need them most, medical cards seem to be getting harder to secure. In the past week, I have come across two particular cases I believe merit mention in this debate. One pertains to a child who is on an 18-month waiting list for a vital operation to enable the child to walk. In a developed country like Ireland, children needing such treatment to enable them to walk should not be obliged to wait so long. The second case worth mentioning, albeit only because it is becoming more regular at my clinics, relates to securing home help hours or carers for the elderly. It is becoming more challenging for older people to secure home help hours and when they do receive approval for such hours, they are finding it difficult to secure the appointment of personnel to carry out the home help.
A review of information regarding Naas General Hospital in my constituency, which I am sure is typical of what is happening elsewhere in the country, highlights the need for a different approach. For instance, in March 2015, some 668 people had been waiting more than a year for an outpatient appointment in Naas hospital, which was an increase of 424 people or of 173% over the previous year. Moreover, there are 5,320 people on the outpatient waiting list in Naas hospital and there were 426 people on trolleys there during March 2016, which is an increase of 37 people or of 9.5% since March 2015. While listing off these statistics is effortless, there is a medical need, which in many cases is acute, behind each person included in these statistics. In particular, I believe older people must become more of a focus for health policy and given the projected increase in the number of older people in Ireland, it is important to put in place polices and supports to deal with this reality. In 2006, some 468,000 people in Ireland were aged 65 or older in Ireland, but by 2041, the number of people in Ireland aged 65 or older will be 1.4 million. Care for the elderly can be provided for in their own homes with some modest supports from the Government or its agencies. Older people prefer to live in their own homes and this can be assisted by providing home care packages or home care hours and making their physical environment more suitable for their needs. In Kildare, there has been a decrease of 83,346 home help hours between 2010 and 2015, as well as a significant fall from nearly €4 million to €1 million in the housing adaptation grant for older people over a four to five-year period. The lack of resources for care for the elderly, as demonstrated by poor investment in home care hours and housing grants, means older people are being pushed into care in the hospitals or into residential care, that is, pushing older people into already-strained facilities. It would be much better to facilitate independent living and to encourage people to be minded in their own homes. This reduction in the overall cost of care for the elderly would free up facilities that are needed for many other services.