When I first saw the list of speakers lined-up to participate in the Health Debate, I couldn’t believe my luck. This was a prime opportunity to hear our Minister for Health endeavour to defend her tactics to privatise healthcare in this country at the cost of the public health service. As it turned out, she left in a bit of a hurry but I did, at least succeed in getting to have my say.
I arrived early in the front square of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) just as the State car drew up at the entrance to the Exam Hall. Mary Harney stepped out of the car wearing what can only be described as, velour pyjamas and with her entourage in tow, she proceeded up the length of the exam hall with me in hot pursuit. Her pyjamas proved to be an excellent decoy as nobody took a blind bit of notice of her and she was quickly escorted to a side room to await the arrival of the real stars of the night. The debate was ably chaired by Conor Gannon of TCD VdeP Society, who did a fine job introducing each of the speakers and keeping order throughout the debate. The motion put forward was: “This House believes that the Irish Health System Fails the Disadvantaged”. I’m delighted to be able to report the motion received unanimous support from the audience and Mary Harney and her band of loyal followers suffered a resounding defeat. Unfortunately, she didn’t stick around for long enough to hear the disquiet that flowed from those on the panel in support of the motion, and from the audience. She made a hasty retreat shortly after delivering her own contribution to the debate. We were told that she had been “called away by Cabinet business”. Yeah, right!
The debate was opened by Prof. Orla Hardiman who gave an impassioned speech about the faults within the health service. She urged the audience to “be angry, be very angry”. She is firmly in favour of an equitable healthcare system for all and her address received rapturous support. Mary Harney then got to her feet and declared that it is her intention to provide a health service based on medical need (as opposed to ability to pay) and insisted that huge progress has been made. We got reams of statistics about how the health service is helping us to live longer but in reality, it was a lacklustre performance. She was constantly interrupted by a heckler in the audience who persisted in shouting her down despite repeated requests to desist. While this heckler was clearly out of order, his intervention proved to be the only challenge to Mary Harney last night as she departed before any one else got the opportunity. Fergus O’Ferrall, speaking in favour of the motion, informed us that 90% of the €16 billion spent annually on the health service comes directly from our taxes. The other 10% of funding comes from the private health insurance market. He accused the HSE of mismanagement through under-provision and rationing of services. The next speaker, Dr. Sean Barrett who opposed the motion, almost won approval when he declared that this health service not only fails the disadvantaged, “it fails everyone”. However, he then proceeded to place the blame on productivity being too low, the fact that private medicine is practised in public hospitals, the high ratio of staff to number of beds, and a greedy medical profession. He made no mention of the Dept of Health or the HSE. Mary Harney scuttled out of the room at this point while she still had someone on side. Throughout the evening, those in support of the motion gave credit to the late Susie Long for using her own plight to highlight the failures within the service. The opposition put forward two further speakers, an ex-TCD student and member of the young Progressive Democrat party (Mary Harney is a PD ) and also a manager from the HSE who were both, it has to be said, less than convincing. We also heard from two further speakers in support of the motion. Audrey Deane, representing the St.Vincent de Paul Society, told the room that HSE managers are turning to the SVdeP to access help for those failed by the system. How bizarre is that? The final speaker in support of the motion was Prof John Crown who denounced the waiting lists caused by underfunding in the health service. He joked that if we had such a thing as an abortion clinic in this country, he was sure the waiting list would be 10 months. “That’s if you go privately, going publicly would take longer!” EU figures for waiting times, show Ireland coming 2nd last on the list. He accused the HSE of employing too many spin doctors, referring to the place as ‘Burassic Park’. John Crown wants to see the Bismarck model of healthcare implemented (a one tier, not-for-profit health service) or else he warned “we’re heading for a ‘Paris Hilton’ style of health care”.
The debate was then opened to the floor and speaker after speaker outlined their experience of the deficiencies within the service. I waited until the end of the night before taking to the floor and then, I let rip. I surprised myself by the depth of passion which flowed as I spoke about the chaos in the public health service, the squalor of the conditions endured by sick people and the scourge of MRSA in our hospitals. I outlined the madness of the recent HSE cutbacks, the continuing problems in A&E despite claims to the contrary and warned of the consequences to follow if Mary Harney’s continues to privatise healthcare in this country. I also spoke out in defence of those who have private health insurance. We tend to be blamed for contributing to the a 2-tier health system when in fact we feel forced to seek insurance as we know we cannot rely on the health service in times of need. I concluded by commending the hard work of those healthcare workers who strive to provide excellent care in difficult conditions and reminded the audience that we need to protect the good aspects of our health service from further government interference.
Following the resignation of our Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, last week Mary Harney announced that she had no intention of running away from her post as Minister for Health. In response, I’d like to say to Mary “be afraid, be very afraid. Time and patience is fast running out.
UPDATE: I forgot to thank Grannymar for her support in helping me to highlight this debate. The chairman of the debate was delighted to have a full house for this annual event and was impressed to hear that the blogging community had given support.