DEPUTY First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls to answer questions in the Scottish Parliament on the management of waiting times in the wake of a damning report.
Scottish Labour demanded the ex-health secretary talk in the chamber about suspicions regarding the accuracy of waiting times figures which were published during her watch.
Ms Sturgeon was in charge of health when it was revealed that NHS Lothian had been manipulating waiting times figures to improve its performance on paper while patients were left waiting longer for treatment.
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A report by Audit Scotland following an independent investigation to determine if such practices were more widespread was published yesterday and highlighted anomalies in waiting times figures in a number of health boards.
Audit Scotland could not rule out the possibility "social unavailability codes", which are applied when patients are not able to accept hospital appointments, had been misused in other health board areas to improve their waiting times results.
In particular, the report found the use of social unavailability increased from 11% in 2008 to just over 30% in 2011. The levels then dropped off around the time "fiddled" figures were discovered at NHS Lothian.
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: "Nicola Sturgeon should come to Parliament and apologise and answer a series of questions. She was in charge when this was happening."
Health Secretary Alex Neil faced a grilling from opposition politicians about Audit Scotland's findings in the chamber yesterday. During the debate, he agreed with a Conservative Party suggestion to hasten a review of on-going waiting times management and conduct it within a year.
Speaking about Audit Scotland's probe, Mr Neil said: "No examples were found after extensive investigation of any deliberate manipulation of waiting list records. The Audit Scotland report is entirely consistent with and accords with the findings of the 15 internal audits reported to Parliament by myself on December 20."
He later added: "I stand by the integrity and basic honesty of our 155,000 staff and I expect the chamber to support that position."
But Ms Baillie told the Health Secretary to "stop using the staff as a human shield". She added: "This is about you putting spin ahead of patient care."
She also accused Ms Sturgeon of knowing about the problem and turning a blind eye.
Liberal Democrat Jim Hume demanded an apology from Mr Neil. He said: "Will he take this opportunity to apologise to the hard-working NHS staff who were forced to amend patient records to achieve his Government's targets without the necessary tools to do so?"
But Mr Neil accused the LibDem of "trying to manufacture suspicions and innuendo".
Labour leader Johann Lamont focused her attack on Ms Sturgeon. "Someone should tell Nicola Sturgeon false statistics and public deceptions don't cure patients and they don't win referendums either," Ms Lamont said.
Alex Salmond said that attack "wasn't about the health service, it's all about 'get Nicola Sturgeon' from the Labour Party".
l A NEW phone line for patients concerned about hospital waiting times is being launched in Scotland this summer. It will be run by NHS Inform.