Wednesday, 15 December 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Naughten: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter. Last night, the on-call ambulance service in Boyle, Ballinasloe and Roscommon was withdrawn by crews due to the failure of the Department of Health and Children to approve a full, on-duty, 24-hour ambulance service. While it was to have been extended with the withdrawal of the service to Carraroe, Clifden and Belmullet later in the week, staff have ceased their industrial action pending negotiation. The issue has not been addressed by the withdrawal of the industrial action and it remains critical to resolve it.
Personnel in the ambulance service are rostered for 20-hour days and some work for up to 90 hours per week. Ambulance services in the Western Health Board region are short of approximately 40 staff. The demands of ambulance staff are fair and reasonable. They seek the establishment of 24-hour, on-duty, trained, full-time crews in place of the current on-call service and the basing of two manned ambulances in Roscommon town. The Western Health Board has sought in writing approval from the Department of Health and Children for these provisions on a number of occasions, but has received no response. An additional 43 staff are required at an approximate cost of €2.2 million per annum.
Boyle has an on-call service at night. It is on the N4, which is extremely busy, and services the N61 which is the main route from the north west to Rosslare Port. The town services north and west Roscommon and has a large elderly population. The ambulance base in Roscommon town serves the N5 and the N63, which are very busy national routes, with one 24-hour service and one on-call service at night. The base covers north-east Galway, west Roscommon, mid and south Roscommon while providing extra cover for the ambulances bases in Ballinasloe and Boyle when they are on call. The base in Ballinasloe serves the N6, east and south Galway, south Roscommon and the critical Portiuncula Hospital, but is only an on-call service at night.
It is not unusual for people in County Roscommon or east Galway to have to wait up to three hours for an ambulance as a result of the on-call system. Scientific evidence demonstrates that a patient who gets to hospital within one hour of an incident, severe road accident injury or heart attack has a 30% greater chance of survival than someone who must wait three hours for an ambulance. It is critical for the Department of Health and Children to tackle the issue and sanction forthwith the funding for services in Roscommon and Galway. The Department has already sanctioned similar schemes in the south east and midlands. All we are asking for is equality of treatment in the Western Health Board area. We should be provided with the same level of service as the south east and midlands where the on-call service has been replaced with 24-hour, manned ambulance bases. These services are especially required given the Tánaiste’s intention to downgrade and centralise emergency services. The Government is not prepared to make the necessary investment in the ambulance services which are so critical to ensure people get to hospital swiftly to receive the emergency treatment they require.
I call for approval to extend services to be granted to the Western Health Board. I do not want to see a scenario develop like that in County Wexford where the Department approved a slimmed-down service and reduced the number of ambulance bases to cut costs. As a basic minimum we want the Boyle, Roscommon and Ballinasloe bases manned on a 24-hour basis by trained professional staff and not on an on-call basis, which is currently the case, with further threatened industrial action.
I call on the Minister also to ensure that the ambulance service in County Roscommon is expanded. There is a black area with regard to west Roscommon and Castlerea, which does not have a proper ambulance service. Those areas are being serviced from either Boyle or the town of Roscommon. The Western Health Board has found the area requires that an ambulance be based there. I ask the Minister to sanction approval for the 24-hour bases in Boyle, Roscommon and Ballinasloe and to sanction the construction and development of a base in the Castlerea-Ballaghaderreen area.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. B. Smith): As Deputy Naughten is aware, the Western Health Board has responsibility for the provision of ambulance services in its area. The Western Health Board has advised that the industrial action referred to by the Deputy has been suspended. The dispute commenced on 13 December and involved the withdrawal by emergency medical technicians from the provision of on-call cover between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. The Western Health Board had contracted private ambulance services to ensure that on-call cover is maintained during the dispute.
Sustaining Progress recognises that a stable industrial relations climate has important benefits for the public, such as the provision of uninterrupted services, improved productivity and staff morale and increased public confidence. It notes that the providers of essential services and their staff have special responsibility to ensure they have well-developed communication channels and seek to resolve problems before they escalate into industrial disputes. If a problem cannot be resolved, it is agreed by the parties to take up all available dispute resolution mechanisms. Sustaining Progress precludes strikes or any form of industrial action by trade unions, employees or employers in respect of any matter covered by the agreement.
Since Sustaining Progress was concluded, the industrial relations environment in the health service has been transformed. The new system has proved very successful in ensuring that employee grievances are resolved without recourse to industrial action and the disruption it brings to the public.
The Western Health Board emergency and patient transport ambulance service provides a service to a population of more than 353,000 people. The emergency ambulance service is provided from ten stations located throughout the board’s catchment area. The past four to five years have seen a significant expansion of the service, ten additional crews have been put in place, the number of 24-hour bases has increased from three to five while the overall hours of operation across all bases have increased significantly. The board has also improved facilities at ambulance stations in Ballina, Boyle, Clifden and Roscommon.
I assure the House that the Government is fully committed to the development of our emergency ambulance service. Much has been achieved in the development of the service and I recognise that much remains to be done. It is essential to maintain the progress which has been made and to continue the process of service development so that effective pre-hospital emergency care is accessible to those who need it most, when and where it is required.
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