Ministers ‘speeded up’ local hospital upgrades

Ministers were accused of using the HSE capital budget as a “slush fund for electoral gain” after it emerged Health Minister James Reilly requested the speeding up of upgrades to the local hospitals of two cabinet colleagues.

Documents released to RTÉ under the Freedom of Information Act show Dr Reilly requested changes to the capital plan to “accelerate” planned improvements to the A&E departments in Wexford General Hospital and St Luke’s in Kilkenny.

Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin and Environment Minister Phil Hogan announced the commencement of work on their local hospitals in June 2011, days before a HSE board meeting on Jun 9 at which the ministerial announcements were queried.

Board minutes show the HSE director of estates, Brian Gilroy, told that meeting he was unaware of the time scale that the ministers promised for the proposed hospital upgrades, and sought written confirmation of the changes to the timeline in the capital plan.

After the board meeting, Mr Gilroy wrote to the Department of Health saying extra money would be needed if the upgrades to the two A&E departments were to be completed in the timelines announced by both ministers. An extra €20m would be needed for the building works in Wexford and just over €14m for Kilkenny. An exchange of emails between the HSE director of estates and the department reveals an additional €12m was approved for Wexford General Hospital by Mr Howlin’s department, while improvements in Kilkenny were to be financed by “efficiencies” in hospital equipment budgets.

At a board meeting on Jul 14, 2011, HSE chief executive Cathal Magee received a letter from the department’s then secretary general Michael Scanlan confirming that the minister for health requested that these two projects be “accelerated in the HSE’s capital programme”. The letter noted that Mr Howlin’s department had sanctioned this expenditure.

Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on health, Billy Kelleher, said: “Quite clearly the Minister for Health and other Ministers see the HSE capital budget as a slush fund for electoral gain.”

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