MLA Roy Beggs Jnr has called for equality for East Antrim in the provision of health and social care.
The Ulster Unionist representative, who succeeded last week in securing an adjournment debate at Stormont, posed questions to the DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots.
Mr Beggs told the Assembly that his motive for seeking the debate “can be summed up in one word: equality”, adding: “Are my East Antrim constituents getting equal treatment when it comes to accessing health and social care provision? I am concerned that many are not.”
Mr Beggs, who was last week appointed UUP health spokesman, recounted decades of local hospital closures and lack of new provision, saying the recurring theme was one of “diminishing services and reducing facilities”.
He added: “The designated acute hospital for the people of east Antrim is Antrim Area Hospital. I need hardly remind members of the problems and difficulties at Antrim Area Hospital over recent years, particularly in the accident and emergency department.
“Another issue with Antrim Area Hospital is the transportation links. It is relatively difficult to access using public transport from Larne and Carrickfergus, never mind from areas such as Carnlough or Islandmagee.
“Down the years, there have been promises of new local facilities and replacement services in east Antrim made by trusts, boards and ministers, but very little has ever materialised.”
Mr Beggs asked what had become of proposed health and care centres in Larne and Carrickfergus and then turned to the sweeping changes now proposed under Transforming Your Care, including closure of Health Service residential and nursing homes.
“The people who run the health service in Northern Ireland want to keep older people out of institutional care settings, maintain them in their own home for as long as possible and then have the private sector cater for those who need to go into care or a nursing home.
“Fine,”, said Mr Beggs, “but is there capacity for domiciliary and community care? Can even the current demands of care in the community be met?”
Mr Beggs recalled that in 2008 proposed re-provision of residential care for older people, entailing the closure of Lisgarel in Larne, Greenisland House and Clonmore generated “a level of public opposition that was unprecedented in my time as a public representative”.
He urged for clarity on the future of care homes, adding: “There is concern in the community, and I am sure that the minister is aware of it. It is unfortunate that a draft plan has been put out and left hanging for so long, yet there is uncertainty about its status and whether or not that is exactly what is planned.”
Responding, Mr Poots said: “I am well aware of the concerns of the local population regarding access to acute hospital services, including accident and emergency.”
He added that the new emergency department at Antrim will be “a purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility, which will incorporate the latest designs and innovations to meet the clinical standards required for a large emergency department, and it will cater for 90,000 attendances” - twice the capacity of the original.
The minister maintained that Transforming Your Care is aimed at providing “the full range of health and social care services outside the acute sector — in the community and closer to people’s homes, thus supporting an increasing number of people to live independently, preferably in their own homes, for longer, promoting good health, reducing unnecessary hospitalisation, improving chronic disease management and allowing for early diagnosis and treatment”.
He spoke of visiting a 90-year-old man in Islandmagee who was “very complimentary about the care that was being offered and delivered to him”. Mr Poots said: “By the way, that care was being delivered to him by a private company.”
The minister acknowledged that the health centres in both Larne and Carrickfergus are in “very poor condition”, adding: “Unfortunately, when the health estate was being reviewed under the previous administration, Carrick and Larne did not appear to fit in at that time with the provision of new primary care facilities.
“I am actively looking at alternative funding options, because it is very difficult to stop other programmes and change those around, and I am very keen to address the issue in Carrickfergus and LarneMr Poots told MLAs: “No decisions have been made on the final shape of services in East Antrim.” However, he did indicate that the Larne primary care team - currently based in the health centre, Moyle medical centre and Moyle community services centre - are relocating to Inver House by the end of the financial year.