Thursday, 25 February 2021
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue for discussion. I think this is the third time I have come into the House to answer a Topical Issue matter regarding the Laois-Offaly area. I am thankful that Deputies Fleming and Cowen do not seek responses from me as well, or I would be in here every couple of weeks answering these questions.
The Government does understand this situation. I know all too well the difficulties families are facing in securing access to some disability services. That is why in preparation for tonight's answer I have tried to get to the exact root of the issue raised by Deputy Stanley. This has been a priority issue for me since being appointed in July and many parents have contacted my office to voice their concerns, which are particularly acute during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Turning to the situation in Laois-Offaly specifically, this is an area of which I was already aware. I have discussed this matter with the HSE previously, as there appear to be several challenges in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, and these most certainly must be addressed. Deputy Stanley is correct concerning early intervention being key. I have been told by the HSE that the lengthy waiting times for children to access Laois-Offaly disability services are primarily due to two issues which the HSE is struggling with and which we must rectify.
The first of these is the high volume of referrals to the services. I have been told by the HSE that local disability services are constantly striving to maximise resources and ensure that the maximum quantity of services is being provided to children. The HSE's Midlands Louth Meath CHO disability services are also facing and tackling several recruitment issues, which I hope will make a big difference to the waiting times that families are experiencing. The aim is to recruit staff to fill all vacant psychology posts as soon as possible, but the recruitment of staff grade clinical psychologists is dependent on the number of clinical psychologists graduating this year.
There are two vacant occupational therapy posts in Laois-Offaly children's disability services and every effort is being made by the local HSE to fill these posts as quickly as possible. Two speech and language therapy posts are vacant in Laois as a consequence of maternity leave, with one person due to return this month. In addition, there is one permanent vacancy and this post is due to be filled next month. In more positive news, the Deputy will be glad to hear that three posts which had been vacant were filled within the past month. As the Deputy may be aware, I secured funding for an additional 100 new therapy posts in the recent budget and I hope to see some of these posts allocated to the Laois-Offaly area in due course.
It is also important to inform Deputy Stanley that I met with CORU last week, which is the organisation responsible for recognising and validating the qualifications of those people who may have returned from overseas and granting them a place on the professional registers. I am working with CORU to ensure that task is undertaken speedily and I have been told that the turnaround time for physiotherapists is now down to 69 days. I am also pleased to note the Trojan work ongoing across all CHOs to clear the assessment of need backlog.
I meet all disability managers every month to monitor the progress being made on clearing the backlog. I am happy to report that in CHO 8, specifically in Laois-Offaly, the backlog fell from 410 in September 2020 to 100 at the end of January 2021, a 75% drop in five months, which the Deputy must agree is phenomenal progress. The important offshoot of this progress is that it will ensure that as the backlog becomes less of an issue, therapists should be better able to focus on the delivery of interventions, which is what children need most.