Cabinet meeting hears it would 'cost too much' to sack HSE boss

Three women out of 10 who had taken cases against the State in circumstances similar to Vicky Phelan have died, it emerged yesterday.

Tony O'Brien and Health Minister Simon Harris

The news comes amid a “stormy” Cabinet meeting yesterday at which ministers called for HSE director general Tony O’Brien to be sacked, only to be told it would “cost too much”.

Finian McGrath, Michael Ring, and Katherine Zappone said Mr O’Brien should depart from his post as he no longer commands public confidence.

The Irish Examiner has learnt Mr McGrath pushed for the cabinet to be “more supportive” of Ms Phelan and victims, but was told that forcing Mr O’Brien from his post could risk a costly legal action.

The Government has approved the terms of reference for a scoping exercise into the cervical cancer scandal which is to be headed by British medical expert Gabriel Scally. It is to be completed by the end of June.

However, the news that three women who were mistreated like Ms Phelan have died was disclosed at the Oireachtas Finance Committee by the director of the State Claims Agency.

Ciarán Breen said Ms Phelan, who is terminally ill, should never have been dragged through the courts adding that none of the women involved in pending cases should go through the same ordeal.

He confirmed that all of the pending legal cases are against US labs, with no Irish labs involved.

As well as Ms Phelan, who was awarded €2.5m by a US lab, the State Claims Agency is now managing nine other similar cases and Mr Breen said they are aware of another potential case.

I understand that some of the women have died between the original smear and now,” he said.

 

“None of these cases should go to trial, that’s the reality, and in three of the cases the US laboratory have already indemnified the agency”.

Mr Breen also told the Oireachtas Finance Committee the agency did not know that the smear test scandal was far wider than Ms Phelan’s case before her situation was made public.

“We did not understand the wider implications which we only learned of later,” he said. 

“Our understanding based on discussions with CervicalCheck was that all of the women had been informed, we didn’t even know the number at the time.

At the time we certainly were of the view that all of the other women had been informed and then we heard it in the media.

Mr Breen said the US laboratory had admitted liability and had offered the State an indemnity, and said they were going to deal with Ms Phelan’s settlement.

Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman Michael Mc-Grath said it is wrong that women are left to fight an adversarial legal battle with a laboratory and he asked if there is any plan in place to provide redress and compensation to women who were diagnosed with cancer.

Health Minister Simon Harris briefed his colleagues about the terms of the scoping exercise and the pending commission of inquiry. 

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, several ministers confirmed the high drama around the Cabinet table.

Mr McGrath raised concerns that a commission of inquiry will take a year or two and in the end “no one will be held accountable.”

Several sources said he and Ms Zappone said if Mr O’Brien did not step down voluntary then he should be told to go.

However, in response, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Harris said there could be legal ramifications and could cost a lot of money if they did that.

If we do it before the scoping inquiry is complete and he is exonerated then it could cost more,” Mr Varadkar is reported to have said.

An audit by the national screening programme, CervicalCheck, of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in 208 cases.

The majority, 162, were not initially told of the outcome of the audit. Of the 208, 17 have since died.


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