Ambitious plans receive a broadly positive welcome

Ambitious plans to restructure the acute hospital sector have received a broadly positive welcome.

Yesterday, Health Minister James Reilly unveiled the membership of six hospital groups as the first step towards establishing not-for-profit hospital trusts by 2015. The trusts are central to the Government’s commitment to establish a single-tier health system and introduce universal health insurance by 2016.

According to the report — The Establishment of Hospital Groups as a Transition to Independent Hospital Trusts — each group will comprise of between six and 11 hospitals and will include at least one major teaching hospital, a primary academic partner and a National Cancer Control Programme Centre.

A second long-awaited framework document for the future of smaller hospitals was also published. That too was favourably received in the main.

Dr Reilly said the proposals represented “probably the most radical and fundamental modernisation of our health system infrastructure since the foundation of the State”.

The minister said each group would be able to operate with maximum autonomy but such competition could not be completely unfettered.

“My department is working with the HSE to put in place over-arching policy guidelines which, while not being prescriptive, should not reduce group independence.

“The guidelines would ensure the minimum duplication of services with a particular focus on national speciality services to help ensure maximum efficiency.”

He said the report was not going to be “just another report that is going to lie on a shelf” and that implementation would begin immediately.

Prof John Higgins, chairman of the strategic board that drew up the report, said the reconfiguration would result in higher quality services and more consistent standards of care. While strong clinical leadership would impact on the system, patients would still be able to choose where they seek care.

He said staff appointments would be to groups rather to individual hospitals to ensure the delivery of as much care as possible in the smaller hospitals.

Asked about concerns over the future status of Waterford Regional Hospital (WRH), Dr Reilly said they were assuaged when people living in the region realised the advantage of having a teaching hospital. Waterford will link with University College Cork under the groupings. University College Cork president Dr Michael Murphy said they looked forwarded to ensuring WRH was upgraded to university hospital status.

A statement from the Irish Hospital Consultants Organisation (IHCA) said they were seeking a meeting with Dr Reilly and health services management on organisational arrangements and resourcing.

“The key issue is how resources and personnel are to be configured allowing the better delivery of health care to patients in a very difficult health environment,” said IHCA general secretary Martin Varley.

Politicians, in the main, gave a guarded welcome to the plans, although Sinn Féin health spokesman Caomihghin Ó Caoláin described the proposed Fine Gael healthcare plan as “fundamentally flawed”.

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