Health Chiefs Must Make Do With Budget, Warns Ahern

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said the HSE will have to live within its operating budget for this year, as a series of bed closures and surgical postponements affect the country.

Under extreme pressure in the Dail, Mr Ahern said the Government would “advise” that economies be secured in areas other than front line staff.

Minister for Finance Brian Cowen was later equally resolute, but conceded that the Health Service Executive could switch monies from other areas to provide services to patients, once it did not try to reclaim the same cash in that category for its 2008 allocation.

Mr Ahern told the Dail that the HSE received an allocation of €14bn, but was running €220m over budget at the end of August, without Government sanction for an overspend.

“They know what their allocation is,” Mr Ahern said. “They should manage within their system. They’ve now had to pull back on their staff numbers until the end of the year, but they have to manage within their position.

“They have to get themselves within budget. There is no alternative.”

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said there had been 32,000 on hospital waiting lists when Brian Cowen was Minister for Health and that Micheal Martin had promised in 2002 to end waiting lists within two years.

“Now there are 41,000 on waiting lists. Consultants around the country are telling me that patients die at the end of the waiting list. And every day we hear more and more of these cutbacks around the country,” Mr Kenny said.

“Now you are going to tell me that you are spending fifteen thousand million on a world class health service. You and your ministers are quite unbelievable in everything that comes out of your mouths.”

Mr Ahern said there were 120,000 working in the health service, dealing with 100,000 patients.

Waiting lists were at a record low, he said, adding that he had no information that 41,000 was the correct figure.

“At the end of September there were 19,083 adults and 2,320 children waiting more than three months for medical and surgical procedures,” Mr Ahern said. “That’s 21,403 in total.”

Most people waiting were waiting for two to five months compared to two to five years a decade ago, according to the National Treatment Purchase Fund, he said, adding there was top quality care in most areas.

Mr Kenny said a member of the Cabinet had said the HSE was “a shambles” and “impossible to deal with”.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said Eamon O’Cuiv had admitted that he couldn’t make ‘head nor tail’ of the HSE.

“He was part of the Cabinet that designed it and brought it into being — if he can’t understand it, what chance has a patient?” Mr Gilmore asked.

Operations had been cancelled at Cavan General Hospital because a consultant anaesthetist had gone on holidays and HSE wouldn’t allow the hire of a locum, he said. Physiotherapy, respite and home help had also been cancelled “as a result of the cutbacks” and an orthopaedic ward due to close in Galway.

“The Taoiseach can come in here as often as he likes and drown us in figures, and money, and billions, and studies by UCD,” the Labour leader added.

“The problem is you can’t get to the frontline services, and there is this incredible bureaucratic maze and barrier in front of people.”

He asked if the Government was taking responsibility for the HSE, or just having “a word in their ear”.

Mr Ahern declared: “We have said that front line services should not be affected. They have taken our advice on that.”

Mr Gilmore said: “The first problem we have with the health services is a Government that will not take responsibility for it.”