The Government has been accused of trying to spin the HSE’s funding crisis by “massaging” official figures, after it emerged that the Department of Health ordered senior managers to keep a €198m debt off its books last year.
The PAC has demanded that the department and HSE produce answers at an emergency meeting next week after the issue was highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
In a landmark decision last summer, the Government agreed to strike a deal which saw hospital consultants told they would receive €198m in unpaid salary increases dating back a decade.
The payment was agreed after a long, drawn-out legal battle which ended up in the High Court after a repeated campaign by medical unions.
It had been expected that the extra €198m would be included in the HSE’s final accounts for 2018 in accordance with international accountancy best practice, which would have increased the HSE’s debt last year to just over €280m.
However, in his report to the PAC, the C&AG Seamus McCarthy noted the extra cost has not been included — an issue he said occurred after HSE officials were directed by the Department to delay including the cost, at the discretion of Health Minister Simon Harris.
PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming said while the sitting health minister has the legal right to tell the HSE how to present its accounts, this has traditionally only been in relation to pension matters.
Criticising the situation yesterday, he said the figures show there has been an attempt to “whitewash” the HSE’s debt, adding that the “massaging” of figures is a worrying precedent for the health service.
“The deficit of the HSE last year was €280-odd million, not €80-odd million. There has been an attempt by the minister and the Department to massage and fool the people, to present what I will call unacceptable figures, to direct the HSE to exclude it,” he said.
Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed, saying there has been an apparent “sleight of hand”, while Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said:
“Is there not something bigger at stake, in relation to the independence of the audit function at the HSE, that a minister can make such an instruction? I have serious concerns about that,” she said.
While Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell said the €198m payment is due to be included in the 2019 and 2020 accounts, both the C&AG and Mr Fleming said international accounting best practice states any debt should be included in the year it is accrued.
The PAC has asked the department and HSE to attend an emergency meeting on the issue next Thursday.