Written Answers. - Speech Therapy Service.

Michael Noonan

Ceist:

275 Mr. Noonan asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to the fact that a school for special needs children (details supplied) in County Limerick has been without a speech and language therapist since April of this year; if his attention has further been drawn to the difficulties the school is experiencing in filling the post; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28028/01]

I have been informed by the Mid-Western Health Board that the board is finding it extremely diffi cult to recruit speech and language therapists. With particular reference to the school in question this post, along with other posts in this area, has been advertised nationally and in the UK. These recruitment campaigns have been unsuccessful. A recruitment agency has been engaged by the board to broaden the search for therapists nationally and internationally, with the objective of speeding up the recruitment process. Filling posts which provide speech and language therapy to school age children with an intellectual disability is a priority for the board.

While significant additional resources have been made available to the health boards in recent years to enhance the level of health-related support services available to children with disabilities, the boards and other service providers have been encountering difficulties in both recruiting and retaining the allied health professionals necessary to deliver the various therapy services.

In acknowledgement of these difficulties, my Department has asked the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the health boards to explore other possibilities with a view to facilitating as many children as possible to access the necessary support services. This might include the purchase of additional sessions which may result in either the maintenance of the existing levels of service provision or an enhancement in line with agreed service developments, using the resources which have been allocated for these services. It is a matter however for each health board and the Eastern Regional Health Authority to determine what additional measures the service in their region might undertake to facilitate this access.

Another measure which has been taken to assist parents in this area is Section 8 of the Finance Act 2001, which amends section 469 of the Taxes Consolidation Act, 1997, to extend tax relief for medical expenses to cover the cost of educational psychological assessment and speech and language therapy services for children.

My Department commissioned Dr. Peter Bacon and Associates to undertake a work force planning study which has just been published. This study was undertaken to examine and quantify the existing and future demand for therapy grades, including speech and language therapists. It concludes that a major expansion is essential in the numbers of therapy professionals over the next 15 years requiring a significant increase in training places. An inter-agency group, comprising representatives of my Department, the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority has been created to ensure the rapid provision of the additional places as an urgent priority. The Higher Education Authority has initiated a formal bidding process between third level educational institutions to respond to the training needs identified in the study. The other key recommendations relating to addressing the shortfall in supply are also being addressed within my Department.