At least 10 more legal actions over cancer screening scandal

At least 10 more women have begun legal actions over the cancer screening controversy as pressure mounts on the Government to launch a full inquiry.

Tony O'Brien and Simon Harris

As the Government scrambles to get a handle on the number of women affected, thousands are still waiting to get advice on a special helpline set up to address concerns.

HSE boss Tony O’Brien is also facing growing calls to resign as furious ministers struggle to avoid political damage.

The Irish Examiner understands potentially hundreds of women could be eligible for compensation from the State.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted yesterday that there would be a redress scheme for women whose cancer was missed and should have been detected beyond normal error and for women where there was a breach of duty to inform them of audit results.

A scoping exercise is now likely to be carried out by an international expert with a view to drafting terms for a full commission of investigation.

Up to 3,000 tests for women diagnosed with cancer over the last decade will now be reviewed.

The revelations come after a US laboratory contracted to analyse smear tests for the Cervical Check programme agreed to pay €2.5m to Limerick mother-of-two Vicky Phelan whose abnormal smear test was missed and who is now terminally ill.

The Department of Health said yesterday it had been informed by the State Claims Agency that six similar legal actions had commenced. In three of those, the State had received indemnities from laboratories involved. In four more cases, correspondence was received from solicitors which indicated legal proceedings would be issued.

The details were provided to the Oireachtas health committee which heard there was also notification of another case which was currently considered a potential claim.

Tony O’Brien, the director general of the HSE, said he had separately sought details on claims similar to Ms Phelan’s and he agreed with the Department of Health’s tally.

Mr O’Brien also revealed that just two of the 17 women who have died were told of the wrong test results before their death.

The Government were forced to defend Mr O’Brien over revelations he is working part time with a US firm chaired by an Irish businessman but still overseeing the Irish health service. There was no “conflict of interest”, said Mr Varadkar.

Mr O’Brien will leave his position in August but Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald argued that it was scandalous he was allowed “to sail into the sunset with a large pension and a hefty gratuity, having left a scene of devastation, upset and trauma behind him.”

Health Minister Simon Harris last night said he was “mad as hell” over the communications failures from health chiefs as the drip feed of numbers and test checks continued.

He agreed he felt “let down and misled”.

Opposition TDs pushed Mr Harris last night in a meeting to scrap a planned Hiqa-led clinical investigation and instead opt for a more powerful commission of investigation.

This would have powers of compellability and could make clear adverse findings.

Agreement is being sought on a scoping exercise around the scandal led by an international expert and draft terms for a commission of investigation by June which would include key questions around the screening errors. Opposition TDs must submit their ideas by tomorrow.

Minister Harris will then bring the cross-party recommendations back to government.

However, the Government are reluctant about an inquiry going on for years. A further Cabinet meeting next week will consider all options.

The escalating crisis has prompted the Government to cover fees and retest costs for women concerned about their smear tests. Despite this commitment, 4,867 women were still waiting on a call back from a special helpline by yesterday evening.

Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly said: “Thousands and thousands and thousands of women across Ireland are scared and they can’t get through to anyone.”

Meanwhile, the HSE has drafted in its chief emergency management official, Damien McCallion, who led responses to Hurricane Ophelia and snow storms to oversee the crisis-hit CervicalCheck service.

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