I had hoped the Minister for Health and Children would listen to this debate as it concerns a health issue. I am very disappointed she has left. I am pleased the Ceann Comhairle has afforded me the opportunity to raise this issue. Sadly, it is not the first time I have had to highlight the difficulties at Kerry General Hospital, Tralee. I reiterate my disappointment that the Minister has left the House in the past few seconds and would not wait five minutes to hear my point.
The management and staff at Kerry General Hospital are a team of dedicated and committed professionals who provide a wonderful service to the people of Kerry and to our visitors during the summer months. Their commitment and dedication is not matched by the Department of Health and Children and the Government in terms of resources, funding and personnel for the hospital, particularly in accident and emergency which is the focus of this debate.
I had the opportunity to visit Kerry General Hospital with my colleague, the Labour Party spokesperson on health, Deputy McManus. We met management and staff who raised a number of concerns, particularly the delay in progressing the much-needed extension to the accident and emergency unit. The need for such an extension is indisputable. The staff see 20,000 patients per annum and waiting times are short. However, there is a need to extend the unit to enhance the services provided. There are just four cubicles with three beds in the resuscitation ward. These are used as an overflow for emergency cases. The facilities for families and relatives are insufficient and staff often operate in cramped conditions.
There is a pressing need to have the medical assessment unit open on a 24-hour basis. Since 1993 the unit has given priority access to general practitioner patients who may not need admission to the hospital but need urgent medical assessment. This takes pressure off the accident and emergency department. The medical assessment unit is open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday, but as we are all aware, people get sick not only during these times, they also get sick during the night and at weekends. The medical assessment unit needs to be open 24 hours per day, seven days per week if it is, as the HSE states, "to fulfil its true potential and to alleviate waiting periods in the accident and emergency department".
This needs to be addressed with the necessary funding and personnel to make the unit operational around the clock. The cap on public sector recruitment is having severe consequences in Kerry General Hospital. The accident and emergency consultant told me that the extension of the accident and emergency unit would resolve the space and capacity difficulties in the unit. However, staffing levels would need to be increased, to include three new registrars, to use the new facilities. The cap on recruitment imposed by the Government will make that impossible. Building the new accident and emergency unit will be worthless if the staff are not available to make the extended unit operational.
I ask the Minister, through the Minister of State, to address three specific issues. A clear timeframe needs to be provided for the extension of the accident and emergency unit at Kerry General Hospital. Funding must be provided to allow for the recruitment of staff to open the medical assessment unit on a 24-hour basis. The cap on public sector recruitment needs to be addressed as this will prohibit the functioning of the new accident and emergency unit when it is extended.
We have a very efficient accident and emergency unit at Kerry General Hospital, but significant problems need to be addressed. This is prevented by the failure of the Government to sanction the extension of the accident and emergency unit and to provide the necessary funding and personnel to allow it to operate at full capacity. I ask the Minister of State, in the absence of the Minister, how much longer the people of Kerry will have to wait for the Government to respond to these issues.