The national treatment purchase fund was established specifically for the purpose of arranging treatment for those public patients who have been waiting longest for admission to acute hospitals for mainly surgical procedures. The fund has been successful in locating additional capacity and arranging treatments for approximately 11,000 patients to date. It is now the case that in most instances, adults waiting more than six months for an operation and children waiting for more than three months will now be facilitated by the fund.
As the Deputy may be aware, intensive efforts have been undertaken to improve staffing levels in occupational therapy both at local and national level. The success of these measures is reflected in the increase of 218 occupational therapists on a whole-time equivalent basis — an increase of 49% — employed in the public health service over the past three years. Relevant developments include the continued implementation of the recommendations of the report of the expert group on various health professions, which included new pay scales and career structures, the undertaking of a concerted overseas recruitment drive on behalf of all health boards, the introduction of a fast-track working visa scheme for health and social care professionals and the streamlining of procedures for the validation of overseas qualifications. The full implementation of the pay recommendations of the public service benchmarking body is also expected to play a part in increasing staffing levels.
In addition, three new occupational therapy courses commenced in the 2003-04 academic year in University College Cork, National University of Ireland Galway and the University of Limerick. In total, these courses will provide an additional 75 training places in occupational therapy. This expansion in training numbers was identified in the Bacon report as necessary to meet the long-term demand-supply balance for occupational therapists in Ireland.