A report commissioned by the minister is reported to have recommended that health boards be reduced to four outside Dublin with a single health authority to cover the greater Dublin region, along with parts of Kildare and Wicklow.
At the moment, there are seven health boards outside Dublin and three separate health boards in the greater Dublin area that are under the umbrella of the Eastern Regional Health Authority. Critics of the present system say it is too top-heavy with administration and should be streamlined to allow more of the department's €9 billion budget for next year to be spent on direct medical care.
And Opposition politicians have accused the Government of allowing inefficient health boards to waste the €4.5 billion extra funding given to the Department of Health in the past five years. Independent consultants Prospectus Strategy Consultants were hired by Mr Martin to review the country's health system in September and they are due to report back early in the new year.
A report in a Sunday newspaper claimed the consultants would be recommending that half the country's health boards should be abolished and an independent agency set up to run acute hospitals.
Department of Health sources confirmed yesterday the substance of the Sunday newspaper report was accurate. "The minister will consider the recommendations when he receives the report in February," the department source added.
The report is also expected to recommend a National Hospital Agency be set up to run acute hospitals and control a budget close to €5 billion.
Mr Martin has already indicated his support for such and agency that would cover Cork and Galway University Hospitals as well as Tallaght, St James, Beaumont and the Mater in Dublin. IMPACT, the union which represents the majority of administrative staff working in health boards, say they are not unduly worried that this proposed change will result in major job losses.
Their general secretary, Peter Mcloone, said there could be a transfer of staff currently working in the health boards to the new national agency that will run the country's acute
hospitals. "Our members would be flexible if it came to transferring from the health boards to the a new national agency beneath the level of the department," Mr McLoone added.
The Irish Hospitals Consultants Association (IHCA) favours a root and branch review of the health boards. A question must asked about three health boards the Midlands, North Western and North Eastern controlling just under three-quarters of a million people, IHCA secretary general Finbarr Fitzpatrick said. And the employment policies of the health sector, which saw the number of workers increase by 45% since 1997, must be reviewed, Mr Fitzpatrick added.
The independent consultants are also reported to be recommending a limit on the influence which local politicians have on health boards. It is argued this would allow a more targeted and rationalised service to develop.
But this is likely to meet with major opposition from county and city councillors who regard their positions on health boards as both influential and lucrative.