Senior doctors are calling on the Government to revisit a taxpayer-funded €115m-a-month deal with private hospitals as three-quarters of their beds lie empty.
An audit of inpatient occupancy levels by the Independent Medical and Dental Consultants of Ireland (IMDCI) yesterday showed an occupancy rate of around 25%. A similar audit on April 14 showed a 16% occupancy rate, when 339 out of 2,058 inpatient beds were occupied.
A senior IMDCI figure said that, at full occupancy, the cost per bed per night under the deal is €1,862 in a private hospital (calculated over 30-day period), and €7,450 a night at a 25% occupancy rate.
He called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris to “show leadership” and allow “some degree” of private work to be carried out, as 2.2m patients with private health insurance are “in limbo”.
Such flexibility would allow greater utilisation of private hospital capacity and ensure better value for money for the taxpayer, said the IMDCI figure.
The State announced the deal with the 19 private hospitals on March 30 in preparation for a surge in Covid-19 patients which early modelling predicted could swamp the public system.
Figures released by the Department of Health last night confirmed 59 additional deaths from Covid-19 and 229 further cases of the disease, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,159 and total cases close to 20,000.
The deal with private hospitals does not cover the average €160,000-a-year salary costs of the consultants who sign up to it.
Around 130 consultants have signed up so far, almost half of whom are based at the Bon Secours hospital, Cork, where management made an informal offer this week to help out on a case-by-case basis with the overheads private consultants incur through running private rooms, as they are currently without private patient income.
The Irish Examiner asked the HSE for a breakdown of the number of consultants per hospital that have signed up to the deal, but no response was forthcoming.
Eric Masterson, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Bon Secours, Limerick, said none of the 20 full-time private consultants at his hospital has signed up to the HSE deal.
Prof Masterson had 70 patients booked in for hip and knee surgery, who are now “in limbo”. Asked what he is doing at the moment, he says: “I am gardening. I have worked all the hours God gave me all of my adult life and all I can do now is put on my gardening pants in the morning.”
Prof Masterson said the HSE was “correct to plan for the surge but it hasn’t materialised and there is no value for money in what they are doing”.
Ian Kelly, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in UPMC Whitfield, a Waterford clinic, said they are all “appalled by the deal”.
Stephen Frohlich, a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine, with commitments at the Beacon Hospital, Blackrock Clinic, and the Hermitage Clinic in Dublin, said the State should have looked at the UK approach, where they paid for private hospitals on a not-for-profit basis, “but in the event the NHS didn’t need them, they could continue on with routine and urgent insured cases”.
Dr Frohlich asked how the HSE is continuing to advertise posts in public hospitals that allow doctors treat private patients in the public system while banning private practice in private clinics.
“There are people in the HSE who will tell you privately that this is a shit storm,” he said.
“But no one has the political balls to say this is a disaster. The decision is made and no one will take responsibility to row back on it or to tweak it.”
Asked if it intends to offer more flexible contracts to consultants, the HSE was unable to respond yesterday.