Hearing loss pilot scheme 'put on hold' in Northern Ireland
A pilot scheme aimed at cutting waiting times for hearing loss appointments in Northern Ireland has been put on hold.
The idea, in which patients could use a high street provider for hearing tests but have their bill paid by the health service, was announced last November.
It followed a BBC News NI story highlighting soaring waiting lists for audiology assessments and treatments.
More than 24,000 people are waiting for a hearing aid, with over half breaching the 13-week target for treatment.
In a statement, the Department of Health said: "The Trusts have put plans in place to address the audiology waiting list to ensure that no patient over 55 years old is waiting longer than 9 weeks for access and 13 weeks to have a hearing aid fitted, once diagnosed, by 31 March 2017.
"It is expected that these plans will start to be implemented from October 2016."
A spokesperson said an alternative plan would involve the health trusts instead.
"It was agreed that all the health and social care trusts would review their current workforce and produce a workforce plan including a training needs analysis, succession planning and training plan to the health and social care board," said the spokesperson.
"The plan is due to be completed by February 2017."
Last November, following a BBC story on the number of people living with hearing loss, Department of Health officials said they were looking at ways to tackle the problem.
The pilot scheme looked set to be rolled out in Northern Ireland.
It is already up and running in parts of England and has proved successful.
The chief executive of the National Community Hearing Association, David Hewlett, has been involved in projects across England.
"There are a vast majority of people who need hearing care but who do not have a medical condition and do not need to go to hospital.
"The vast majority just simply need to see a trained clinician who can assess their needs and meet them in the home community.
"You don't, for example, go to hospital if you need your eyes tested or have a pair of spectacles fitted and hearing correction is very similar to vision correction."
But 10 months after Stormont's Department of Health announced the idea - when asked by the BBC what was stalling the scheme - the spokesperson said the plan has been put on hold.
'Living in silence'
Meanwhile, waiting list figures continue to climb.
One man who contacted the BBC said he has been waiting over a year to be fitted with a hearing aid.
What is unclear is why the Department of Health has rolled back from the idea.
Documents seen by the BBC reveal that in May 2015 the Health and Social Care Board was considering a procurement programme to taking soundings on possible solutions.
In February this year, a letter from the health minister's office to Specsavers confirmed that Health and Social Care Board had advised that it expected to commence the pilot shortly.
At the moment, people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales attend hospital to have their hearing tested and if necessary a hearing aid fitted.
The Commissioner for Older People Eddie Lynch described the waiting lists as a serious problem and called on the health minister to take action.
"The impact on their quality of life can be significant even simple things like being able to hear the phone ringing but also not being able to communicate with family or friends," said Mr Lynch.
"They have described it to me as like living in silence.
"As a result waiting long times to have a hearing aid fitted or fixed has a really detrimental impact on their life."