The Health Minister Jim Wells says the difficulty of filling positions in hospitals in the Western Trust necessitates the continued use of expensive locums here with new figures revealing more than £10m was spent employing non-staff doctors, nurses and health care assistants at the local health authority in 2014 alone.
Almost four years ago a Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report revealed that the cost of expensive locum cover in the Western Trust accounted for almost 17 per cent of medical staffing - double the NI average and the highest locum bill in the province - between 2007 and 2011.
But new figures released by the Department of Health show the dependence on locums continues. Mr Wells confirmed that from January to October £7,561,000 was spent employing locum doctors in the Trust, which dwarfed expenditure in every other Trust bar Belfast.
He also confirmed that the Trust also spent more money on locum nurses and health care assistants (£3,476,031) than the Southern and South Eastern Trusts although the Northern and Belfast Trusts spent more on locums who were not doctors.
Releasing the information in response to an Assembly Question, which was tabled by SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney, the Minister explained why the local Trust is still so heavily dependant.
“Locums are particularly vital to provide services across a range of specialties and/or locations where junior doctor or consultant vacancies have been difficult to fill on a substantive basis, therefore our smaller hospitals and those in the Western HSCT (SWAH and Altnagelvin) and Northern HSCT (Causeway) are disproportionately affected,” the Minister stated.
He also stressed the key role locum agencies play in filling vital but hard-to-fill health care posts.
“Staff procured through Agencies are particularly vital to provide services across a range of professions and/or locations where staff vacancies have been difficult to fill on a substantive basis,” he stated.
This time last year it was revealed fifty per cent of both consultant and junior doctor vacancies at the Western Trust were still being filled by locum doctors in December 2013. Out of 31 consultant vacancies, 16 were filled by external locums, although the remainder were filled by NHS locums, which were not as costly.
In its critical 2011 report the NIAO suggested new immigration rules, introduced in February 2008, restricted the number of overseas doctors eligible to work in the UK. The NIAO said the Western Trust’s reliance on International Medical Graduates (IMGs) had been partly replaced by a disproportionate use of locum cover. In 2011 Dr Tom Black urged the Health Minister to “incentivise” medical posts in the North West to try and address the issue.