The cost of expensive locum doctors, which has put continual strain on the Western Trust budget over the past decade, was almost a million pounds more last year, than had been projected by the chief executive of the health authority Elaine Way.
New Health Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed, in a reply to Foyle MLA Mark Durkan, that the total cost of medical and dental locums in the Trust was £12.9m in the 2015/16 financial year.
That’s £900,000 more than Ms Way hoped she would have had to spend on short-term staff. Last November she told MLAs that she hoped locum spend could be capped around £12m this year. But that figure has been exceeded by almost a million pounds.
One weapon the Trust has had in its efforts to reduce its over-reliance on locums is foreigners.
Last year Mrs Way said foreign doctors were being especially recruited to help reduce the rising cost of locums, which she acknowledged was the “single biggest financial pressure” facing her organisation.
Some high profile health experts have warning Brexit could jeopardise the health service’s ability to attract and recruit foreigners.
Fiona Godlee, the editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has urged health service staff to vote remain on this very issue tomorrow.
She wrote: “The NHS relies on overseas doctors and nurses - both from within and beyond the EU.
“One in 10 of the doctors working in our health service was trained in another EU country.
“Those already here would not be sent home tomorrow if we pulled up the drawbridge, but leaving the EU would jeopardise the free movement of people on which our health service depends.”
Anti-immigration laws have already posed problems for the health service, according to some.
Under new legislation recently introduced by the Home Secretary Theresa May immigrants now have to earn at least £35,000 in order to settle in Northern Ireland.
And back in 2011 the Audit Office (NIAO) suggested new immigration rules, introduced in February 2008, restricting the number of overseas doctors eligible to work in the UK, had led to an over-reliance on locum doctors here that still persists and costs taxpayers millions.
The NIAO said the Western Trust’s reliance on International Medical Graduates (IMGs) had been partly replaced by a disproportionate use of locum cover.
A concern over Ms May’s new cap is that nurses from Asia, barred from staff jobs due to their lower than £35,000 earnings, would be replaced by more expensive agency nurses.
The Trust could experience the same thing that happened with locums when African and Asian doctors found it more difficult to settle in NI after 2008.