THE Northern Health and Social Care Trust have highlighted their 'commitment to continue to provide a respite service for local people with MS'.
The statement comes after the MS Society NI expressed its 'grave concern' over the rumoured closure of the MS Centre at Dalriada Hospital, Ballycastle.
In a statement to the Times, a spokesperson from NHSCT revealed that 'consultation will take place with users of the unit to determine what their preferred model of care is for the future'.
It continued: "Northern Trust MS clients have access the full range of normal hospital and community services, they also have access specifically to 2300 bed days of respite in Dalriada community hospital.
"Over the last 10 years the pattern of regional commissioning for respite provision for young physically disabled people, including those with MS, has been changing. There is less demand for respite in hospital based regional centres and strategically there is a need to develop modern respite options for people within their own homes and communities.
"As a result commitment has been made to the Commissioner, the Health and Social Care Board, that consultation will take place with users of the unit to determine what their preferred model of care is for the future. We are presently meeting with users of the MS centre seeking their views around provision of services at Dalriada .
"It is understood that other Trusts are also reviewing care provision for this group. However, they have already significantly reduced their volume of bed days within the Dalriada Unit over recent years. Obviously this has had an impact on utilisation of the Dalriada Hospital due to funding retraction. Nevertheless, there is a Trust commitment to continue to provide a respite service for local people with MS."
The Regional Multiple Sclerosis Respite Centre in Ballycastle currently has 12 beds where people affected by MS from across Northern Ireland can go for up to two weeks respite care. There are more than 4,000 people with MS in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after a number of concerned MS patients contacted the MS Society, NI Director Patricia Gordon said that any decision to close the facility would have a devastating impact on people with MS and their families and called on Minister McGimpsey to intervene.
She explained: "Rumours have been circulating for a number of months that the Northern Trust is considering the closure of the MS Unit at Dalriada. This would represent a 50% reduction in dedicated MS respite care beds, a totally unacceptable reduction. This is a deeply worrying development which will cause serious distress and upset among people with MS, as the unit is a vital regional resource. Northern Ireland has the highest instance of MS in the world and yet there is no strategy to deal with this. Now we have a situation were existing beds for treating people with MS are under threat. People with MS are wondering if this is part of a concerted attack on people with MS following the closure of 30% of the dedicated neurological beds in the RVH in October 2010 with no consultation.
"Closing the unit at Dalriada would be yet another blow to properly addressing the needs of people with MS, as well as those with other neuro diseases such as Parkinson's. We all know that there are major financial challenges for the health budget in Northern Ireland but it is completely unacceptable that a critical resource such as the MS unit, which provides respite care for the 4,000 people with MS and their families, could be closed. Speaking to people with MS over the last few days, it is clear that there is a deep sense of dismay that the unit could be closed without proper consultation with those families who rely on it most. It is essential that people with MS and the public generally are properly consulted before any decision is made.
She continued: "The Northern Trust should recognise that this regional unit serves 4,000 people with MS in Northern Ireland providing a vital respite facility for dedicated carers and families. Any decision to close the unit would inexorably impact on the ability of people with MS in Northern Ireland to live a full life and put an unnecessary strain on families. I urge the Minister for Health to intervene and protect this vital resource as a matter of urgency."
Last week local SDLP issued a statement confirming they will be 'pressing for the retention of the MS Centre at Dalriada Hospital'.