Speakers at a meeting held in Enniskillen to oppose the Pathfinder Project, which aims to reconfigure health services in the Fermanagh and West Tyrone area, have said that Pathfinder is “a mechanism to undermine opposition to cuts to local health services”.

One speaker from the floor raised the issue of a £24.4m forecasted deficit for the Western Health and Social Care Trust and asked the question was Pathfinder a means to enforce savings in this area?

This deficit came to public attention with the release of minutes for the April meeting of the Western Health and Social Care Trust Board where it was recorded that “the Trust is reporting a forecast deficit of £24.4m which the Department of Health has agreed to cover with an agreement that the Trust will develop a three year recovery plan commencing in April 2019”.

The meeting to oppose Pathfinder was organised by lobby group, Fermanagh Save our Services, LAMP Fermanagh and an Ad Hoc Hospital Group. It was held in Fermanagh House last week.

Pathfinder was set up in July last year and embarked on a series of public engagement meetings. In March of this year seven members of the public were appointed to the role of Experts by Experience to help with the next stage in the Pathfinder process. However, two of those Experts by Experience, are no longer part of the Process after they refused to sign an “involvement agreement” that they say amounted to a “gagging order”.

One of those former Experts by Experience, Dianne Little, gave a presentation to the meeting.

“This is clearly about saving money in my opinion. If we look at the documents associated with Pathfinder they talk about acute services and this area being reliant on high cost locums, and that new models of care are needed to remove the Trust’s dependency on Locums. But every hospital including Altnagelvin is reliant on the availability of locums. It seems the Fermanagh community are the target for cost savings,” she said before questioning the possible long term implications.

“Any move to remove locum staff will result in what Pathfinder documents suggest; Fermanagh people having to travel to the ‘regional capacity’ provided elsewhere. And of course when services are moved elsewhere there is a cost saving for the Trust, but there is another cost and that is the cost to us, and people’s health, and the equality of health provision that we are entitled to in this area.”

Ms Little also commented on the Trust deficit of £24.4m:

“The Pathfinder documents, written by a civil servant at a time when the Western Trust is £24 million in debt and when we have no Health Minister oversight, make a clear judgement that key services here are not sustainable due to dependency on high cost locums.”

Newly elected Councillor, Donal O’Cofaigh was also at the meeting and he raised similar concerns.

“There were significant questions raised about the intention of Pathfinder. There is a real and justifiable concern that Pathfinder is a mechanism to undermine opposition to cuts to local health services and is a vehicle to save money in order to deliver on unrealistic budgets brought about by austerity.”

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council are to meet the WHSCT on June 12 regarding Pathfinder.