THE potential closure of two GP surgeries in Ballymena affecting 7,000 patients should concern everyone in Northern Ireland, an MLA has said.
The Ballymena Health and care Centre houses six GP surgeries, with the Ballymena Family Practice and Bernaghmore Practice handing back their contracts to the Department of Health.
This means the practices will respectively end on December 31 and May 31 if new contractors can’t be found.
The Department of Health has said the 3,204 patients at Ballymena Family Practice will now be assigned to 18 neighbouring surgeries, taking effect from January 1.
A spokesperson said the department wished “to reassure all of the patients affected that they will continue to receive services and every effort will be made to minimise disruption.”
Local practices who wish to increase their list have been advised they will receive additional funding for every patient they take on.
Alliance MLA Patricia O’Lynn said it was “a very sad and unfortunate state of affairs” for the health service.
“There’s no doubt this will cause a great deal of concern for residents in North Antrim and other healthcare practices in the area, but it also serves as a warning to be heeded for Northern Ireland as a whole,” she said.
“While we continue to be forced to sit on our hands because of the DUP’s boycott of the institutions, our health and social care services are falling into a state of crisis with no ministerial leadership, no direction, and no important decisions able to be made. It’s utterly unconscionable.”
SDLP councillor Eugene Reid said: “The thought of 7,000 people trying to find a new practice at a time when our health service is under extreme pressure doesn’t bear thinking about.”
He added: “The issues we are experiencing in Ballymena are being replicated right across the north. Due to a lack of proper workforce planning and the failure to recruit and train enough GPs we are seeing many practices left in a similar situation when existing GPs retire or leave due to the demands being placed on them.
“Our health service is on its knees due to a failure to implement much needed reform and people everywhere are suffering. I will do everything in my power to protect local services, but what we really need are functioning institutions at Stormont to make the necessary changes to that everyone can access healthcare when they need it.”
Meanwhile, another GP in the health centre said the prospect of taking on thousands of extra patients could have a “devastating effect”.
Dr Susan Sproule told BBC NI the added pressure could force her to hand back her own contract.
“We have to be truthful not only to our profession but to our patients and I think at some point patient safety has to come into this,” she said.
“It is fundamental and if we can’t provide a safe service we will have no other choice but to possibly hand our own contracts back.”