Minister suggests charging drunk patients

Northern Ireland’s health minister has said charging drunk patients for treatment at hospitals’ Accident and Emergency departments could help prevent the overstretched service from being abused.

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Poots said the idea of charging drunk patients had “merit”

Earlier this week Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s health minister, agreed there was “merit” in charging patients admitted for drink and drug related ailments, adding that it could be a way of preventing misuse of A&E by the public, as reported by the Belfast Telegraph.

As reported by the BBC, Poots said: “The United Kingdom has a great principle of health care, free at the point of need to all who need it irrespective of their ability to pay for it. I think it is a wonderful principle but I think on occasions it is abused and we sometimes need to look at how we can make sure that abuse doesn’t take place.”

He admitted the idea had “merit”, but that implementing it would be “more challenging”.

His comments follow attempts by Poots’ department to ease pressure on the country’s overstretched A&Es by providing extra resources, however staff have said they are still frequently under “severe pressure”, according to the BBC. 

Dr George O’Neill, chairman of addiction in Northern Ireland, has branded his comments “simplistic and totally impractical” and a “naive”, “knee-jerk response” to a much wider issue.

“Politicians should stick to strategy and policy and should not be looking at delivery of service, that is not their role”, he said, adding that charging people who are drunk would not address the problems emergency departments are facing.

“Tinkering with A&E is not going to solve a problem. He has to look at the whole system and at present they are not doing that. Knee-jerk reactions do not solve long-standing problems”, he said.

In response to criticism, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said: “The issue of considering charging those attending EDs for treatment arising from being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs serves to stimulate public discussion about the need for people to use the health service wisely and, if they don’t, then looking at what steps we might take to influence them.

“However, this (charging) would be a difficult measure to implement. In practice it would be very difficult to differentiate between those that have a health problem because of a direct decision they have taken themselves and those where there is another cause.”

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