Wednesday, 23 June 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Ms O'Sullivan: I welcome the fact the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, is in the House because his efforts will be important in this regard. It is essential a paediatric unit is opened in Limerick Regional Hospital before the winter. As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will know, there tends to be a rush on hospitals in the winter, particularly on paediatric wards dealing with sick children, which tend to be quietest at this time of the year. It is essential that work is done to put this unit in place by the autumn so it will be available for the inevitable winter rush.
Last winter there was gross overcrowding in the paediatric unit of Limerick Regional Hospital. That situation cannot continue for another winter not only for the sick children who are very vulnerable but also their parents who must sit on hard chairs between beds. There is also a danger of cross infection where sick children are close together.
I want to ensure the unit is open in the autumn. There is no reason it should not be because the building is ready and the unit is waiting to be opened. Sums have been done and those involved are ready to order the equipment needed to open the unit. All that is needed is the funding to employ the extra staff and provide for the opening of the unit. At present a maximum of 32 beds, although generally the number is 25, are available to children in the Limerick Regional Hospital. They are divided into two areas with smaller babies in one area and older ones in another. The staff are over-worked and conditions are not acceptable for sick children. The new unit will have 53 beds, 29 private rooms, a day unit and a high dependency unit as well as facilities for parents.
We should not have to wait any longer for this unit. I say that in the context of everything being ready and, in particular, in light of the huge budget surplus which is being predicted again this year. It has been predicted that we will have an extra £1.5 billion apart from the extra money made on the sale of State assets. To open the unit, we are looking for a minuscule fraction of that budget surplus. We are talking about less than £400,000 in the current year and £1.581 million in a full year. Even if the State buys Farmleigh House for £24 million – I note Vincent Browne said we should not spend money buying it because of the various other needs – and we forget about the sale of assets, if we get the £400,000  which we need this year, we will still have a ten figure surplus of £1,476,600,000, if my figures are correct. We are looking for a tiny amount and it is crazy not to allocate that funding. The Minister for Health and Children should fight his case with the Minister for Finance and he would have the country behind him. He should get money for units such as this, for the elderly, the mentally and physically handicapped and for waiting lists. I am sure there are many other needs. I honestly believe we should spend this surplus money on current needs and not just retain it in the coffers of the State. I think we have the second lowest debt among EU member states after Luxembourg. There is not a reason not to spend the money. The Minister would be the most popular holder of that office if he spent it and I urge that the money be made available this year for the opening of the paediatric unit in Limerick Regional Hospital.
Mr. N. O'Keeffe: On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Brian Cowen, I am pleased to have the opportunity afforded to me tonight by Deputy O'Sullivan to address the House on the issue raised in relation to the opening of the new paediatric ward in Limerick Regional Hospital.
This hospital was originally built to cater for the needs of the health service of the 1950s. Because of a number of factors, including demographic changes, advances in medical technology and increased consumer expectations on the level of service which should he provided in our hospitals, it was clear by the early 1990s that the hospital was not prepared to meet the needs of the health service for the new millennium. This was because major capital developments did not take place on the site until the current redevelopment commenced in December 1995 when phase 1 commenced at a cost of approximately £20 million, including building fees and equipping. In August 1997 phase 2, which includes the new paediatric unit, commenced and the cost of this phase was also approximately £20 million, bringing the combined capital cost of these two phases of the redevelopment to in the region of £40 million.
The building works for phase 1 were completed last year and although most of the building works on phase 2 have already been completed the builders are not expected to hand over the paediatric unit to the Mid-Western Health Board until later this month. Some furnishing and equipping work will then have to take place before the paediatric unit will be able to accommodate patients at an acceptable level of care and the Mid-Western Health Board expects this will take a minimum of three to four months.
I hope the Deputy will understand that new units completed under major capital developments are normally commissioned on a phased  basis as the additional Revenue funding required becomes available. In this regard, the Minister made £0.55 million available to the Mid-Western Health Board for commissioning of new units in 1998 and provided an additional £2.5 million for this purpose this year, bringing the total available for commissioning in 1999 to £3.05 million.
To enable the full commissioning of all the new units completed under phases 1 and 2, the Department of Health and Children has been involved in discussions with the Mid-Western Health Board to agree a programme of transferring services to the new facilities in a manner which maximises the impact of the available funding. One of the Minister's prime objectives in the forthcoming Estimates campaign will be to secure funding to enable the commissioning of phases 1 and 2 to be completed to ensure that the people of Limerick and the mid-west have access to the state of the art health care facilities which they deserve, including those in the new paediatric unit.
In this regard the Minister has asked me to put on record the additional funding which he has provided to the Mid-Western Health Board this year. Under the 1999 waiting list initiative £819,000 was provided for additional procedures in a range of specialities, including cardiology, ENT, gynaecology, ophthalmology, orthopaedics and general surgery. An additional £800,000 was also provided for the development of cancer services including oncology, haematology and palliative care. On the capital side he provided £410,000 for replacement equipment and minor capital works. This level of funding clearly demonstrates the commitment of the Minister to the ongoing development of acute hospital services in the region and he is confident the current discussions between his Department and the Mid-Western Health Board on the commissioning of the new units at Limerick Regional Hospital will be successful in achieving the earliest possible opening of the new facilities.
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