Mr Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman and Chairman of the Stormont All-Party Committee on Congenital Heart Conditions, has challenged the DUP Health Minister “to get his department’s administration in gear and speed up the autism assessment process after the UUP revealed the number of children waiting more 13 weeks for an initial assessment has rocketed from 219 in 2012 to 1,452 in 2015”.
Assemblyman Swann, who is UUP Chief Whip and North Antrim UUP Chairman, threw down the gauntlet to the Health Minister after posing a written question to him on autism assessments.
Assemblyman Swann had asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety a number of details after parents in North Antrim expressed their concerns and frustrations at the ever lengthening time they were having to wait.
Responding to Assemblyman Swann, the Health Minister said in terms of referrals for initial assessment that in the strategy document, Priorities for Action 2009/10’, the following target had been included: By March 2010, ensure that all children wait no longer that 13 weeks for assessment following referral and a further 13 weeks for commencement of specialised treatment.
The Minister added: “Information on autism waiting lists are collected on a monthly basis by the Health and Social Care (HSC) Board from each of the five HSC trusts.”
Regarding initial assessments to diagnosis, the Minister said: “There is no target related to the time from commencement of assessment to diagnostic outcome for autism.”
The Minister also supplied Mr Swann with details on the number of children who have waited longer than 13 weeks from referral for an initial assessment for autism at 31 December in each of the last four years. The Minister noted that the date referred to children aged 0 to 18 as the data is not collected by age band.
The data show that while the number waiting longer than 13 weeks dipped slightly from 219 in 2012 to 202 in 2013, there was a massive jump to 700 in 2014 and a more than doubling of the waiting list to 1,452 in 2015.
The Minister also told Mr Swann that the HSC trusts “do not report on the time from commencement of assessment to diagnostic outcome”.
The Minister added: “An increased investment of an additional £2 million for Autism services across Northern Ireland was announced on 14 February 2016.
“This new financial support will fund expanded teams in each HSC trust in order to improve assessment times and access to autism specific support services.
“The Department will also continue to work with the HSC boards and trusts in order to improve processes and remodel services to further drive down waiting lists and improve access to high quality services,” the Minister told Assemblyman Swann.
Responding, Assemblyman Swann said: “I fear this will be too little, too late. The number of people on the autistic spectrum seems to be increasing and much more than £2 million will be required to be invested by the health minister.
“This figures sounds more like a drop in the ocean compared to the substantial funding which is required to address the autism waiting list crisis, which has seen the waiting list crisis increase by seven-fold in a couple of years.
“I will be closely monitoring this serious situation and I hope the new health minister after the 5 May poll will invest considerably more to alleviate the autism waiting lists,” said Assemblyman Swann.