THE SHOCKING inability of the NHS to treat Welsh patients is today revealed in the most scathing report ever written on Welsh Assembly Government policy.
Auditor-General Sir John Bourn's devastating report into waiting times reveals failings in almost every aspect of the health service, which have left some patients waiting more than four years for treatment.
The National Audit Office also found disturbing inadequacies in Welsh Assembly Government health policy to manage and eradicate scandalously long waits.
The report reveals:
More than 100 people in Wales have been waiting more than four years for an outpatient appointment. The same number have been waiting the same length of time for inpatient treatment;
Wales spends more on health per head of population than England but people in Wales have to wait significantly longer for elective health treatment;
The rate of improvement in Wales has been slow and targets have generally remained static - only Northern Ireland has longer waiting time targets;
Differences in waiting times have been exacerbated by work in England and Scotland to reduce waiting times further;
Expensive waiting list initiatives have failed to tackle the root causes of long waiting times;
Instead of imposing tough sanctions on NHS trusts that fail to meet waiting list targets, the Welsh Assembly Government has rewarded failure.
Sir John said, "Patients in Wales are waiting too long to see consultants in outpatients and to receive non-emergency surgical treatment.
"NHS Wales can do better.
"The Welsh Assembly Government and the NHS must tackle the inefficiencies in the system and the unacceptable regional variations in waiting times.
"Past initiatives have treated the symptom but not always the cause of long waiting times.
"The Welsh Assembly Government and the NHS must address and drive down waiting times for the people of Wales."
But new Health Minister Dr Brian Gibbons, who took over from Jane Hutt four days ago, yesterday insisted long waits in Wales had fallen significantly and said the report would help to build on the success of the past year to move things forward.
The three-volume NAO report revealed that although there had been some recent improvements in reducing long waiting times, Wales was lagging painfully behind the NHS in Scotland and England.
And even within Wales the length of time people have to wait for inpatient treatment or a first outpatient appointment with a consultant depends on where they live - patients in the south face the longest waits.
The Welsh Assembly Government wants no one to wait more than 12 months for inpatient or day-case treatment and 18 months for outpatients by March - the corresponding targets in England are half as long.
There are more than 6,000 people breaching the outpatient target in Wales and 7,338 people have been waiting more than 12 months for an operation.
Sir John identified major capacity problems in hospitals, exacerbated by high levels of emergency admissions - repeating the messages of some four other previous reports - and a lack of alternative, community-based treatment options as "major obstacles" to bringing down waiting times.
He also attacked the Assembly Government's record of using waiting list initiatives to remove long-waiting patients - £36m was spent in two years to remove 40,000 people from the list.
Sir John's report said they "provided "neither good value for money nor sustainable reductions in waiting times".
It added, "Although initiatives were clearly good for the 40,000 patients treated, they contributed little to sustainable improvements in waiting times.
"Such initiatives treat the symptom, rather than the cause of long waiting times, reinforcing the imbalances and weaknesses in the configuration of the current system, instead of dealing with the long-term causes of long waiting times.
"Initiatives are very expensive and consequently provide questionable value for money."
Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Plaid Cymru's Shadow Health Minister, said, "This fifth report into the health service is the most devastating critique of the Labour Assembly Government's health policy so far.
"The report identifies that New Labour is guilty of having no strategy, poor management and financial incompetence in its administration of the health service."
And Jonathan Morgan, the Welsh Conservative health spokesman, added, "The Labour Party should be utterly ashamed - a modern NHS needs to meet the requirements of patients without long, painful delays.
"Under Labour it is just not doing that.
"The findings of this latest report are horrific and provide further evidence of the abject failure of the Government's health policies over the last five years.
"It is no wonder Rhodri Morgan sacked Jane Hutt on Monday knowing full well this report was due out later in the week."
But Dr Gibbons, who will formally respond to the report later this year after it has been discussed by the Assembly's Audit Committee, said most patients were treated well within the target time and there had been an 86% reduction in those waiting 18 months in the past year.
He added, "By concentrating on reducing the length of time people are waiting we are giving Welsh people what they want - the right treatment in the shortest time.
"There is still a challenge ahead of us in tackling long waits but I am confident that we will continue to build on the good work already under way to reduce long waits in Wales."