Awarding of smear test contract to US firm sparks row

A ROW has broken out over the awarding of preferred bidder status for laboratory testing of cervical smears to a private US company.

The National Cancer Screening Service (NCSS) announced yesterday that Quest Diagnostics had been named as the preferred bidder for the provision of cytology cervical screening services, which is set to link in with a national screening programme for cervical cancer later this year. The finer points of contract terms are likely to be finalised in the coming weeks.

Quest Diagnostics welcomed the move, claiming it would deliver a “first-class” service to Irish women. Quest had been asked by the HSE last year to clear the existing backlog, which at one point stood at almost 11,000 smears.

The tender criteria state that there must be a 10-day turnaround time for dealing with samples. Quest will deal with the Irish samples in labs in Chicago and New Jersey, although a spokesman said the company was in discussions to develop an Irish presence. It is expected that the winning bidder could deal with up to 30,000 smears per year.

But the trade union for public laboratory scientists said the tendering process had been “flawed” and called on Health Minister Mary Harney to say whether this was “privatisation by stealth”.

The Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) said the move undermined public cytology services, whose appeals for more funding in recent years had been “ignored”.

MLSA general secretary Terry Casey said the qualification criteria “were clearly written to favour this preferred bidder”.

The tendering criteria required that labs be accredited, but MLSA industrial relations executive John Kane said that when the tendering process began, just three out of the eight public labs here had been accredited, whereas all will be by the end of the summer.

He said insufficient funding had been provided to public labs, hampering them in their attempts to compete for the tender.

The current tender is for two years with the option of a further two, but Mr Kane said: “If all cytology screening goes out of the country for two years then cytology labs here will not be able to apply in future — people [staff] will simply move on.”

He added that there were now fears that other parts of the public lab workload could be lost in future.

An NCSS spokesperson said that other parts of the programme still to be finalised included a contract between the NCSS and the smear takers — including GPs and nurses — which she said was in the final stages, and agreement with colposcopy clinics for the smaller number of screened women who would need to be referred for treatment.

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