After ten years, ten months and ten days in office, Bertie’s finally gone! You cannot but wonder if Mary Harney will soon be following him. Brian Cowen, our Taoiseach-in-waiting, is due to receive his seal of office tomorrow and will announce his new cabinet shortly afterwards. Will he show Mary the door?
I had to laugh when reading about the HSE in the Sunday Indo yesterday. “A bloated system”. “HSE belt tightening is a fat lot of good”. “The HSE like everyone else needs to tighten the belt, to cut a little fat”. “The HSE will soon resemble a hippopotamus in bondage gear”. I”ll give you one guess as to what stimulates this sort of language from newspaper columnists. You’re right! Our present Minister for Health is no advert for healthy living and after three and a half years in the job, she’s definitely looking the worse for wear. Harney took on this role in September 2004 with promises to reform the health service. During her time in office, she is credited with achieving a reduction in A&E waiting times, putting a new cancer control programme in place, reducing operation waiting times and the introduction of hygiene audits.
A recent report provided by the HSE, showed that in the first two months of this year 44 per cent of patients in hospital emergency departments awaiting admission, had to wait longer than the official maximum target period of 12 hours. The report also revealed that the number of patients waiting more than 24 hours for admission increased by 57 per cent over the same period last year. The only thing that has improved is the HSE’s daily fiddling of the figures to make it look like there is a reduction in the numbers on trolleys.
As regards the cancer control programme, Mary Harney secured at enormous cost, the appointment of a top cancer specialist, Prof Tom Keane. His mission is to restructure cancer care in this country with the introduction of 8 new centres of excellence. According to John Crown, a medical oncologist, none of the four centres planned for Dublin will be comprehensive. “The plan is that colon cancer is treated in one place, lung cancer in some other place. That is not excellence in care. It is a system based on compromises which are in turn based on medical politics”. Under the new plan, there will be no centre of excellence located north of a line between Dublin and Galway. This system is already doomed to failure.
Waiting lists for operations have been reduced but at a huge cost. Surgeons and their operating teams in our public health system are frequently left twiddling their thumbs when their operating lists are cancelled because of the shortage of beds for elective admissions. Meanwhile the HSE is paying top dollars to the private hospitals via the National Treatment Private Fund (NTPF) to have public patients treated in the private system. This madness is Mary’s solution to the long waiting lists. Talk about false economy.
And finally the hygiene audits. Mary Harney promised back in 2005, to tackle health care associated infections (HCAI) and said that the target over the next three to five years would be to reduce hospital-acquired infections by 20 per cent and MRSA by 30 per cent. The numbers of patients becoming infected with MRSA fell only slightly last year. Newly released figures show there were 533 cases of bloodstream MRSA infection reported last year, compared with 588 in 2006, a reduction of less than 10 per cent. Overcrowding, poor cleaning, haphazard hand hygiene, infrastructural defects, and lack of infection-control staff particularly microbiologists, is favouring the spread of the hospital superbugs. Our Minister for Health is more interested in budget control than infection control and patients remain at serious risk of infection.
New official figures have shown that the HSE is now €95 million over budget for the first four months of the year. The HSE has drawn up a series of controversial proposals to claw back on the financial overrun. These include hospital bed closures, the curtailment of A&E services and new restrictions on the issuing of medical cards and drug-cost reimbursements. There is also a proposal to divert the €185 million earmarked for the development of services for the disabled, older people and those in palliative care. We ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of cutbacks and the impact this will have on patient care.
There is increasing unrest amongst those working in the health service and patients too, are fast losing patience. Mary Harney’s credibility has been badly damaged by a series of cock-ups and system failures during her tenure in office. The failure to get the new consultant’s contract up and running has been a major blow to her plans. Her promises to reform the health service, have not materialised. The question remains. Will Brian Cowen take the easy route and leave Mary Harney to continue to take the flak or will he have the courage to show her the door?