Another HSE scandal - Will this madness ever end?

Six years ago, the Health Service Executive cleared a backlog of cervical smear tests by using a company in Texas to assess almost 40,000 samples.

This was understandable in the pressing circumstances of the day but it pointed to an unfortunate inadequacy in our health system. Too many women and their families had been left waiting for far too long for animportant and urgent diagnosis.

The Texas arrangement highlighted the export of exchequer funds that would have sustained jobs in this country had the essential facilities been put in place and the management of our health service — or indeed a private operation — been alert to the opportunity.

Unfortunately, with more than 440,000 people unemployed, despite scores of thousands emigrating, those missed opportunities are far more vexing today than they were six years ago.

Quest Diagnostics Inc cleared the backlog within six months and the HSE insisted the arrangement would be temporary. Sadly, the HSE’s record is such that no one will be surprised, and what an indictment that is, to hear that two years later — in 2008 — Quest was given a further two-year contract, which was extended for a second two-year term in 2010. Earlier this year, that contract was extended for another four years.

These extensions were granted despite assurances given in 2005 from the highest level of the HSE that the arrangement was “a short-term solution to an unacceptable problem” and “from this point forward, the outsourcing of cervical smears will only arise in the event that the national laboratories providing screening reach a backlog of more than three weeks”.

So much of what is wrong in this country comes together in this sorry saga of failure, inadequacy, and meaningless promises from officials. Firstly, a backlog should not have been allowed develop but it did; secondly, the breathing space created by Quest’s initial involvement should have been used to establish or identify a facility in Ireland to do the work, offer a faster diagnosis to women and sustain jobs here rather than in Texas. But none of this happened despite the huge number of managers in the HSE. Precious health funding is supporting foreign jobs while we cut services, watch jobless figures grow and struggle to create jobs to try to re-energise this flat-lining economy.

Over recent weeks, Health Minister James Reilly has been in the firing line on a number of issues. Just yesterday he tried to clear the air over decisions he made to extend the primary care project and his links with site owners who might benefit from his decision. His credibility has been rightly questioned and he may have to do a lot more to convince his detractors that his motivations are what they should be.

One of the charges levelled against him is that he “is like a bull in a china shop” and that he has an aggressive management style. In the face of HSE deals like the one on cervical smear tests, how could he be anything else? Rather than criticise him, maybe we should encourage him and ask his colleagues in cabinet to follow his lead.

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