The HSE has spent nearly double its budgeted figures on agency staff in mental health services over the past five years.
In that time the health executive has paid some €242m on locum staff working in its mental health services, versus budgeted allowances of just €127m.
Figures released to Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on mental health, James Browne, show that such services have consistently run over-budget since the beginning of 2014.
Mr Browne said the budget mismatch was significant by any standard and showed the failure to control agency costs.
“This type of increase just goes to show how important it is that the Government’s commitment to reduce dependency on agency staff is adhered to,” he said. “They need to stick to their own plan to recruit directly.”
A HSE response to the figures has not yet been received.
Health Minister Simon Harris declined to comment with a spokesperson suggesting the matter is an operational one for the HSE.
The amount paid to agency staff has risen exponentially over the same time period, with budgets likewise increasing, though not on a level comparable with the actual outlays.
In 2014, the €27m paid to locum staff in mental health roles was seven times the budgeted figure of €3.9m.
Gradually budgets have come more in line with actual outlays. In the first six months of 2019, €27.6m was paid out to agency staff, versus a budget of €21.7m.
However, in that time mental health agency staff spending had risen to €58m as of the end of 2018. By comparison, an additional €55m was allocated to mental health services in last October’s budget, suggesting that a huge tranche of that budget is being spent on agency workers.
The issue of locum payment is one which has dogged the HSE for many years, with those Irish graduates in the health professions who choose to remain in Ireland often opting to work as a contractor due to the heightened salary scale and flexibility of work.
However, the trend is not commonplace across Irish industry. The latest agency worker employment estimates from the Central Statistics Office show that as Ireland steadily approaches zero unemployment the number of people working as agency staff fell by 6,200 between the start of 2018 and January 2019.
“The Government’s approach clearly isn’t working. It’s getting worse, not better, and that’s not good enough,” Mr Browne said.
He said the issue as applied to mental health is “particularly worrisome as in such services it’s so important to have continuity of care”.
“When it comes to psychiatric nurses or consultants, it’s so important to build up trust. A continuous turnover in staff means that opportunity is never there,” he said. “Not only is that not value for money, but it definitely impacts on the quality of care for patients."