The HSE is to review the operation of a work permit scheme that allows foreign doctors to work here, on foot of warnings that it is too restrictive and threatening the survival of GP out-of-hours services.
The HSE told the Irish Examiner that it had “recently become aware of challenges” faced by agencies that recruit these doctors and that it was “reviewing this matter”.
It will be liaising with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) in the Department of Justice “with a view to examining how best to address the challenges”, the HSE said. INIS manages, monitors, and administers the scheme.
When the matter was highlighted in the Irish Examiner two weeks ago, INIS told the newspaper that the HSE had advised “they do not consider that any amendments to the current terms of the scheme are required at this time”.
The medical director of SouthDoc, Gary Stack, said the restrictions were hampering their ability to hire non-EEA (European Economic Area) doctors to cover “red-eye” shifts during antisocial hours including overnights, weekends, and bank holidays. This cover is essential to maintaining an around-the-clock GP service.
SouthDoc covers Cork and Kerry and earlier this week, Cork city came close to having no out-of-hours cover, with one locum sourced at the last minute, leaving a second slot vacant, Dr Stack said.
Doctors say the staffing problems caused by the current work permit scheme are not new. These problems include an effective ban on those granted a visa on leaving or re-entering the state during the 90 days that they are permitted to work here, as well as an inability to apply for a new permit until a 30-day “cooling off” period has elapsed, following the expiry of their previous visa.
As it takes another 30 days or so to process the application, they are effectively unable to re-enter the state for up to 60 days. Dr Stack and Dr Pat Morrissey, chairman of Shannondoc, argue that the permit scheme has become “the biggest block” to recruiting overseas doctors to fill red-eye shifts.
INIS said the rationale behind a cooling-off period “which applies to all such permissions, is rooted in the principle that an atypical permission is not a substitute for the replacement of full-time labour”.
“Thus a person granted such permission cannot automatically roll over their atypical permission,” the Department of Justice said.
One foreign doctor who contacted the Irish Examiner and who has worked on and off in Ireland on a locum basis for more than 10 years, said he is currently unable to obtain a visa having worked here earlier this year.