Ironically, the meeting takes place at a time when the HSE is facing an end-of-year deficit of up to €500m and in the context of the Department of Health warning that up to 300 beds will close and 2,400 fewer hi-tech operations will take place next year if the Government insists on cuts of more than €200m to ensure spending comes in under a defined ceiling.
The meeting also coincides with efforts by Health Minister Leo Varadkar to secure a €500m supplementary budget estimate this year.
Last week, Mr Varadkar was rebuked by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny for admitting that some of the key elements in the Government’s health reform programme were unworkable. Mr Varadkar’s spokesman conceded there was a “small issue there [with the Taoiseach]” “but not from our side”. “We’ve been laying out the priorities, we’ve been very clear,” the spokesman said.
Today’s meeting at Farmleigh House will be largely a “listening exercise” on the minister’s part, although time for individual contributions will be limited given the meeting is only scheduled to run until lunchtime.
Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said hospital chiefs would be asked for their views on hospital policy and if they had any issues that were “particularly pressing”.
“He [Mr Varadkar] also wants to thank them and let them know he is backing their fight for resources, but they must ensure the money is well spent,” the spokesman said.
He said the minister also wanted to make “a couple of suggestions” particularly about the manner in which appointment times are meted out to patients.
“He thinks hospitals need to be more specific about appointment times, so that patients aren’t waiting around for hours,” the spokesman said.
And he wanted more focus on patients’ perceptions of how they are treated in hospital, the spokesman said.
The minister will also be talking about the need for cost containment and he will be asking hospital chiefs to back the new hospital groups, the forerunners to hospital trusts.
Pointedly, the spokesman said the gathering was “an introductory meeting” as part of Mr Varadkar’s approach to “try and work with people”. His predecessor in the health portfolio, James Reilly, was perceived as having a tendency to go on solo runs.
Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said the importance of meeting people face-to-face “cannot be underestimated” and that if more work needed to be done after the relatively brief meeting, then “it will be done”.
Meanwhile, Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar should abandon personality politics and concentrate on patients, the chairperson of the Oireachtas health committee has insisted.
Jerry Buttimer echoed the Taoiseach’s concern that civil servants at the health department are not on board for reform, but said Mr Varadkar was right to demand more money.
“This should not be about personalities, it should be about delivering what is best for the health service.
“We need reform, but reform costs money.
“I think that any budget cut will have an impact on services,” Mr Buttimer said.