The national director of the HSE’s screening service will be quizzed today about the 33 week wait for the return of cervical screening results.
Damien McCallion is due before the Joint Oireachtas Health Committee where Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly intends to take him to task over growing delays.
The HSE said the 33-week wait poses “a very low risk to women” when taking into account the "natural history" of the disease which normally takes 10 to 15 years to develop.
The HSE’s comments are in the wake of it revealing that delays in screening test results have increased substantially, from 27 weeks in February to 33 weeks, at a time when there is a backlog of 78,000 samples.
In January, the HSE confirmed that 1,000 smear tests expired due to the CervicalCheck backlog, and that women affected need to be retested. The delays are linked with Medlab Pathologies, which processes c45% of CervicalCheck smears.
The HSE said it is “making every effort to improve this situation” including “extensive efforts [globally] to source additional laboratory capacity”.
The HSE also said it has agreed with MedLab that they employ HPV (Human papillomavirus) co-testing in order to prioritise women who are HPV positive, as they are considered to have the highest clinical needs.
However, the Government and Health Minister Simon Harris came under severe attack in the Dáil over the increased delays for women who had to be retested.
Fianna Fáil's Lisa Chambers said the situation has gone beyond serious: “The Minister for Health single-handedly caused this backlog and he has failed to get to grips with it. MedLab treats patients and deals with women in rural Ireland, so women in all of those constituencies in rural Ireland wait much longer than other women.
Ms Chambers said:
Women are being told their tests have expired and must come back in for another repeat smear, having sought the repeat test in the first place because they were worried.
Solidarity TD Joan Collins called for answers since it emerged any of the women facing delays are being forced to seek private medical care in order to get a timely response.
Tánaiste Mr Coveney said the HSE has sourced additional capacity abroad and he had “a note that suggests it has secured capacity and is trying to finalise contractual arrangements”.
In 2018 c370,000 women presented to CervicalCheck, an increase of 90,000 on 2017. The increase was a result of the uptake of out of cycle smear tests and more women presenting to the programme, in the wake of the CervicalCheck scandal, when Mr Harris offered free repeat smears.
Sinn Féin health spokeswoman, Louise O’Reilly said “we assumed that the Minister had established that the capacity existed to do this before the offer was made".
“Unfortunately, the delivery on this commitment has been nothing short of a catastrophic failure."
Mr Donnelly said "the repercussions of this ‘free test offer’ cannot be overstated".
"We’re up against a ticking clock here and time is running out before many tests simply expire."
In the past, results would have been available in four to six weeks.