Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Community united in battle for health care services in Crossmaglen

The people of Crossmaglen turned up en masse on Thursday night to reiterate their pledge to continue to fight to secure adequate health services in the area.

During a public meeting organised by the staff of Rathkeeland House Surgery, who spearheaded the recent campaign to retain Dr Fee’s GP services in the town, members of the public, along with local medical staff, political representatives and community campaigners discussed ongoing concerns regarding full GP coverage, a proper treatment room facility staffed by a dedicated treatment room nurse, below par ambulance cover and the absence of a school nurse in St Joseph’s High School.

The meeting had been called in the wake of last month’s shock resignation of Crossmaglen’s much loved GP, Dr. Patrick Fee who had revealed that he could no longer deliver adequate care to his 3500 + patients due to the impending departure of his practice partner and attempts to secure adequate locum GP cover proving fruitless.  In addition, the non-replacement of Trust-employed nursing staff, had left his position untenable.

His wholly altruistic decision led to a concerted campaign instigated by Rathkeeland House Surgery staff and supported by the entire community to have Dr. Fee remain in the practice he began more than 25 years ago. A ‘Save Rathkeeland House Surgery’ page on Facebook was inundated with messages of support and politicians pledged their backing for the campaign.

After discussions with the practice early last week the Health and Social Care Board agreed to offer assistance to Rathkeeland House Surgery with its recruitment process to ensure additional GP support is provided to the practice on a permanent basis and consequently Dr Fee withdrew his resignation indicating his willingness to resume his position as contractor on behalf of his Rathkeeland Surgery and to continue as employer of the practice staff.

Despite this much welcome development, campaigners urged the community to attend the scheduled public meeting on Thursday to discuss the ongoing healthcare crisis in the area.  People duly turned up in their hundreds and the sense of unity of purpose was palpable as the crowd were addressed by Rathkeeland House staff, Practice Nurse Marian Quinn, campaign spokesperson Michael McArdle, Dr Fee himself, Community First Responders and political representatives Dominic Bradley and Mickey Brady.

Both Mr Brady and Mr Bradley called for a united front in the fight for proper healthcare in the area with Sinn Féin MP Mickey Brady  agreeing that the current crisis was “not a party political issue, it goes way beyond that.”

“I will happily work with anyone from any party or group in order to secure the level of healthcare that this area needs and deserves,” he added.

The Newry and Armagh MP commended Dr.Fee and his staff “for their incredible efforts during what has been a very difficult period” and revealed that, along with his party colleagues, he has had numerous meetings on the issue of Rathkeeland House and healthcare in south Armagh in general.  He said both the Trust and the Board had given assurances that they are exhausting all possibilities to secure a permanent solution for the area but he urged people to remember “this battle is by no means over” and pledged his ongoing support and assistance to the campaign and to Dr. Fee in his upcoming meeting with a number of health officials this week.

“Whatever happens, we’ll stand with this community and fight for it to get the healthcare it deserves,”he said.

SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh Dominic Bradley hailed the meeting a “tremendous success” and said it sent a strong message to the Southern Trust and the Health and Social Care Board that the community “will not tolerate any diminution of health services in the local area.”

He commended the staff of Rathkeeland Surgery and Dr Fee for mounting such an effective campaign to retain the practice and said he and his colleague, Councillor Donnelly, will be raising once again the issue of a practice nurse for the Treatment Room in the Crossmaglen Health Centre with the Chief Executive of the Health Trust.

“When I meet the senior management of the Health and Social Care Board I will convey to them the strong views expressed by local people at the public meeting and I will inform Dr. Fee of the outcomes,” said Mr Bradley.

SDLP Councillor Geraldine Donnelly, who was also present at Thursday’s meeting, said it was important that the Health Trust and Board “sit up and listen to the voice of the people and their public representatives and ensure that this area has the highest possible standard of health care for the local population.”

She paid tribute to the local people who have taken the initiative to found a First Responders Group and said it will go some way towards compensating for the deficiencies in ambulance cover.

Practice Nurse Marian Quinn outlined the concerns of the entire community about the absence of a permanent treatment room nurse in the area since the retirement of the formidable Margaret Dillon two years ago.  Nurse Quinn said the current ad hoc opening of the town’s treatment room presented a potentially life threatening risk for the people of Crossmaglen and caused an overload for GPs and Practice Nurses which compromised patient care and the wellbeing of local medical staff.

Her sentiments were echoed by all and campaign spokesperson, Michael McArdle, advised that the vitally important issue was the focus of his meeting with the Chief Executive of the Health and Social Care Board, Valerie Watts, last Wednesday.

During that meeting a petition signed by 4,461 people was presented to the Board by Mr McArdle, The Examiner Editor, Gerry Murray, and John Nealon demonstrating clearly the depth of feeling among the local population about the sub standard provision of health services in the area.

Mr McArdle revealed that, as the Board commissions Treatment Room Nursing Services from the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, he would be seeking a meeting with the Trust early this week.  In the meantime the Board have passed on the concerns of the community to Trust officials in the hope of reaching an agreeable resolution to the treatment room crisis.

As the meeting concluded with comments from the floor, many expressed their anger that members of the health board and the trust had not attended and said there was a sense of “abandonment” with regards to services across south Armagh, with the general consensus felt that people in the area were treated as “second class citizens.”

There was unanimous agreement that the campaign group, with the support of the Crossmaglen community and its political representatives, will continue to put all their energies into securing safe and adequate frontline health services for south Armagh and that letters would be drafted to health officials and the Health Minister, Simon Hamilton on the back of Thursday’s meeting to ensure these health care requirements were fully met.