Health Minister accused of hiding soaring National Children's Hospital costs over chance of early elections

Health Minister accused of hiding soaring National Children's Hospital costs over chance of early elections

By Daniel McConnell, Political Editor

Health Minister Simon Harris has been accused of hiding the escalating cost of the National Children's Hospital before Christmas because of the chances of a general election.

The tripling in costs at the hospital to €1.44bn will be the focus of two major Oireachtas Committee hearings this week. Mr Harris is under fire over the failure to disclose the increases.

The Oireachtas Health Committee and the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) will both hear from officials involved to seek clarity on how costs were allowed to spiral so dramatically. Mr Harris himself will appear before the Health Committee tomorrow.

Both committees will also be examining issues relating to the ongoing cervical check scandal, particularly the revelation that, because of a backlog in the checks, some 6,000 scans will have to be retaken.

Labour TD Alan Kelly, who sits on both committees, has said there “has to be a political consequence” for Mr Harris over what went on.

“There was either a clear and total breakdown on cost management or there was knowledge of the cost increases and Mr Harris and his top team did nothing about it,” he said.

Mr Kelly criticised Mr Harris for refusing to disclose board minutes relating to the children's hospital's mishandling by way of parliamentary question.

He said he has complained to Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail in a bid to have Mr Harris disclose the relevant information.

Mr Kelly said that the significant cost escalation “did not come out of the blue” and Mr Harris and his officials were either grossly incompetent or they hid the information for some reason.

“Did it have anything to do with the fact that Fine Gael was looking at the possibility of holding an early general election? - Alan Kelly.

"Did they not want this news coming out at that time? But people in the HSE made it known to me that other capital spending projects were likely to be delayed or re-profiled because of the costs overrun at the children's hospital,” he said.

“Why didn't Simon Harris make it publicly known there was an issue here? Why did he continue to insist all was well?"

He said it is “highly unusual” if it turns out there wasn't a hands-on approach from the board in charge and the HSE key team, led by Jim Breslin, Mr Harris' Secretary General.

“It is fairly incredible that this scale of an increase came out of the blue,” he said.

Other Opposition parties have again demanded that Mr Harris answers key questions on this issue and on the subject of the runaway costs of the new National Children’s Hospital.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly and his Sinn Féin counterpart, Louise O’Reilly, said there is a need for complete clarity on the issue immediately, due to legitimate concerns over both scandals.

It emerged at the weekend that the joint medical board of the Children’s Hospital Group wrote to the Health Minister late last year expressing concern about its ability to "adequately staff both the main hospital and the satellite units for urgent and ambulatory care".

Figures obtained by Mr Donnelly show that 455 hospital consultant posts are filled by locum, temporary and agency staff.

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