HSE under fire for 'chaotic' decision-making on Cork mental health centres

PAC quizzes officials on shutting Owenacurra facility in Midleton
HSE under fire for 'chaotic' decision-making on Cork mental health centres

There was an outcry over the closure of the Owenacurra Centre in Midleton.

The HSE’s decision-making with regard to spending on mental health properties in Cork/Kerry has been described as “chaotic and inconsistent” and “setting aside all best practice”.

At a session of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), officials from the region were questioned regarding the decision to shut the Owenacurra mental health facility in Midleton and the situation regarding the HSE’s rental of the Garnish House guest house in Cork city.

On Thursday, the  Irish Examiner revealed that the rental of Garnish in April 2020 was initially opposed by the HSE at a national level due to it not representing value for money.

Garnish was initially to have been vacated early last year. It will now remain occupied by vulnerable patients until at least the first quarter of next year, by which time the HSE will have spent the same amount renting it as could have been used to purchase the property outright in 2020.

At the PAC hearing, the HSE’s chief officer for the Cork/Kerry region Michael Fitzgerald told Labour TD Alan Kelly that to date “€1.6m or €1.7m” has been spent on the rental and cleaning of Garnish House.

“You valued it at €1.6m and you’ve spent €1.7m on rent?” Mr Kelly asked.

“Yes,” Mr Fitzgerald replied. “It is high cost but we intend to be gone from the facility no later than the end of Q1 next year.” 

'Not a long-term placement'

Asked by Green TD and prominent Owenacurra campaigner Neasa Hourigan whether or not the residents of Garnish House have been informed they will be leaving there early next year, Mr Fitzgerald replied that “anyone moving to Garnish House at all times understood that it was not a long-term placement”.

“Everyone understood it was not a centre we would be staying with,” he said.

Meanwhile, outgoing HSE chief executive PAul Reid told the committee repeatedly that he “stands over” the decision to close Owenacurra, first announced in June of last year amid outrage from its 19 residents and their families, describing the facility as “highly inappropriate” regarding the state of its infrastructure.

“The right decision was made,” Mr Reid told local TD James O’Connor.

Ms Hourigan said that her own engagement with the HSE on the matter regarding the plans to close Owenacurra — including evidence of far lower capital investment in the centre than in other facilities over the past 10 years and its sale being mooted in correspondence from 2019 — "suggests an agenda over... the last decade to close Owenacurra”.

“It seems perfectly clear that here was a tacit agreement to run the service into the ground and sell off the site,” she said, adding that the decision to move the residents to shared accommodation such as St Stephen’s Hospital which have been harshly criticised by the Mental Health Commission “sets aside all best practice”.

Mr Fitzgerald pointedly declined to commit to the Owenacurra site not being sold under questioning from Mr O’Connor.

So much of this decision-making makes no sense given you’ve changed your story so often.

“The service that was there was outstanding, the heart of the community, and it’s been taken away,” Mr O'Connor said, adding “it’s appalling how it’s been handled”.

Committee vice chair Catherine Murphy asked if it would be fair comment to say that “you have moved people (from Owenacurra) to adverse circumstances?” 

“In ideal circumstances, you would move people to purpose-built accommodation, but in mental health service we don’t have enough of those centres in Cork,” Mr Fitzgerald replied.

Ms Murphy said it is “very difficult to make sense of the thinking in terms of patient safety and the turmoil people would be experiencing” regarding the Owenacurra move.

Regarding the rental of Garnish House, she said the decision making which led to that lease appeared to be “chaotic and inconsistent”.

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