The Chief Executive Officer of the University of Limerick Hospitals Group (UHLG) has apologised for the "distress and the lack of dignity and privacy" experienced by far too many patients seeking access to care in University Hospital Limerick (UHL).

Professor Colette Cowan, told the Joint Oireachtas Health Committee, that it was not the kind of care environment they wished to provide for the people of the midwest.

She said the group was responding to a report last June on the emergency department at UHL, by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) which found that patients were at risk from grossly overcrowded conditions.

She said that last year, the UHL emergency department saw a record 76,473 patients and there had been a further increase this year.

Prof Cowan said that UHL should have 642 inpatient beds, to manage the extra acute and emergency medical and surgical patients arising from the changes in Ennis, Nenagh and St John's Hospitals.

She told the Committee this did not happen, chiefly because of the global financial crisis and the collapse of the public finances.

Prof Cowan said that UHL currently has 530 inpatient beds and is far short of what was recommended and making no allowance for the increase in and rapid ageing of the population.

Next month, shew said construction will begin on a badly needed 96 bed block to include 48 new beds and 48 replacement beds.

But she told the Committee that UHL will still have a shortfall of 87 beds.

She said that until the UHL under capacity is addressed, the group will not eliminate hospital overcrowding in Limerick.

The Committee is meeting to look specifically at the problems in the UHL emergency department.

Sinn Féin's Maurice Quinlivan TD told the Committee that people were afraid to go to the UHL emergency department because they knew how long they would have to wait.

He said he was also aware of patients with dementia who were allowed to walk out of the emergency department.

Professor Brian Lenehan, Chief Clinical Director of the UHL Group said that UHL had a singular emergency department serving a population of 400,000 people.