Emily O’Reilly accused health chiefs of wasting public resources, operating in “a parallel universe” and frustrating her attempt to access vital family law records.
Launching her annual report – which revealed a record 10-year high in the number of complaints – a frustrated Ms O’Reilly described in detail the difficulty her office had accessing HSE records over payments to guardians of children.
Health chiefs, she said, had led her office in “a sort of an Alice in Wonderland trip around the legal system,” incurring a needless waste of public money.
“I think there’s a huge issue around the excessive secrecy and legalism of the HSE. It strikes me that it is a cultural thing within the HSE,” she said.
“It is redolent of a body that looks not to the public interest, which is the only reason it’s there, and seeks... at times to protect its own interest.
“It’s as if the HSE works in a parallel universe... So there’s something rotten within that system,” she said, adding that the issue must be tackled.
Labour last night echoed Ms O’Reilly’s call for transparency in the HSE.
Health spokeswoman Jan O’Sullivan said she hoped the scathing comments would prompt the Government to address “serious flaws” embedded in the executive.
The Ombudsman received a record 2,873 complaints in 2009 – the highest number of complaints in 10 years. In total, it dealt with 9,913 enquiries.
While the majority related to the civil service (41.9%), another 26.3% also related to problems with the HSE.
A further 30% of complaints were made in connection with local authorities.
The highest number of these related to Dublin City (96), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (80), Cork County (75), Clare (61) and Galway (61).
Ms O’Reilly said many complaints to her office now related to problems and delays accessing social welfare, child benefit and other state-assisted payments from people hit by the recession.
A number of disturbing cases were also investigated by her office over the care and treatment of individuals.
“I can only describe these cases, particularly in the social services and public healthcare services areas, as shocking and unacceptable,” she said.
The Ombudsman’s office said that around 45% of problems it handled resulted in complainants being better off, including where apologies or financial settlements were made.
Nearly one in seven complaints were fully resolved.
Ms O’Reilly said that despite a record number of cases handled by her office, some public bodies and local authorities were still failing to refer or inform complainants about accessing the Ombudsman’s facilities.
Responding to her comments on accessing records, health chiefs said they had to comply with laws to protect the rights of patients, particularly children’s.
Every effort was made to be transparent, the HSE said, adding that it was very disappointed that the Ombudsman had chosen to “so graphically characterise” the actions of staff as attempts to block and suppress information.