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19 April 2007 Edition

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HEALTH FOR ALL : Bungling management of our health services highlighted

rish Nurses’ Organisation General Secretary Liam Doran with Sinn Féin Councillor and Dublin North East candidate Larry O’Toole at the nurses’ protest at Beaumont Hospital

rish Nurses’ Organisation General Secretary Liam Doran with Sinn Féin Councillor and Dublin North East candidate Larry O’Toole at the nurses’ protest at Beaumont Hospital

FF/PD Government term ends in Health chaos

By Mícheál Mac Donncha

As the term of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government limps to a close the Coalition finds itself presiding over chaos in the health services. The nurses and midwives are protesting. The negotiations for a new contract for consultants have broken down. The scandalous scheme to allocate public land and tax breaks to developers of private for-profit hospitals is in deep trouble but is being forced through by Health Minister Mary Harney.
Last Friday the head of the Health Service Executive, Professor Brendan Drumm, made the extraordinary admission that he and Mary Harney had never discussed the public-private hospital co-location plan. Interviewed on RTÉ radio, Drumm was clearly deeply uncomfortable about the plan. Drumm was totally unclear in his response to the question as to whether, as reported the previous day, the proposed ten co-location sites had been reduced to four. Then the HSE director of the project, Tom Finn, stated that eight sites are to go ahead, but with contracts unlikely to be signed until the end of the May – probably after the General Election.
The proposed number of hospital sites involved has fluctuated over the past 12 months yet the Government maintains its claim that 1,000 public beds will be 'freed up' by transferring private beds out of public hospitals. Sinn Féin Health spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin called for the plan to be scrapped right away. "This developer-driven, for-profit scheme will worsen the two-tier hospital system and drain funding and personnel from the public system. It should be abandoned without further delay,” he stated.
Further powerful backing for this argument came from two very distinct sources this week. SIPTU General Secretary Joe O’Flynn, at the union’s Nursing Convention in Castlebar, said the co-location plan “is something to which the vast majority of health professionals are opposed, as they are to every attempt to spread the plague of a two-tier regime ever deeper into the health system…[The Government] should simply scrap the proposal and concentrate on managing the existing Public Health system”.
 But even in the private healthcare sector there is not unanimous support for the plan. Niall O’Carroll, chairperson of the Hermitage Medical Centre in Lucan which was opened on Monday by Bertie Ahern, said there were now too many private hospitals in the pipeline as a result of Government policy and they would find it “almost impossible” to get staff. This confirms the argument that, with a limited pool of staff, the lure of profits in the private system will suck professionals out of the public system, further crippling our public hospitals that provide the greatest proportion of healthcare for the vast majority of people, including essential services, such as A&E, which the private system will not provide.
 A section of hospital consultants have very profitably straddled the public and private systems for years, thanks to a contract with the Government which allows them to profit from private practice while being paid very handsomely for work in the public system. In 2001 the government promised to negotiate a new contract with hospital consultants to ensure greater equity for public patients. That contract was supposed to be delivered in 2002. Talks only began in earnest earlier this year and have now broken down because the Irish Medical Organisation and the Irish Hospital Consultants Association object to the Government’s plan to advertise public-only consultant posts from the end of this week.
Such public-only posts are badly needed and should be filled but the Government has bungled this as they have bungled so much else. In the contract negotiations with the IMO and IHCA they have sought to introduce a clause which would prevent consultants speaking out publicly on issues in the health services. And the Government’s credibility as a defender of the public health system in the negotiations has been fatally undermined by its own privatization policy and its flagship co-location scheme.
In contrast to the privileged position of a section of consultants are the nurses who provide most of the care in our hospitals and who have seen their long-standing call for a 35-hour week ignored by the Government. The result is the current escalating dispute with protests taking place at hospitals around the country. North Kerry Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris hit back at Mary Harney when she criticised Kerry nurses for holding a peaceful protest during her visit to Kerry General Hospital. Minister Harney also criticised Martin Ferris for attending the protest. Martin Ferris said:
“I am amazed that Mary Harney has the neck to criticise nurses in Kerry for holding a peaceful and dignified protest at the entrance to Kerry General Hospital after she in fact had reached an agreement with the nurses’ organisation about the conduct of the protest as she entered the grounds of the hospital. And while I am used to the PDs attacking me, I am surprised that she actually criticised me for attending a protest in support of the nurses. Does the Minister not believe in democracy?
“The protest was entirely peaceful and was one of the most dignified I have ever attended. The fact that the nurses previously agreed with Mary Harney to remain silent while she passed them in her Ministerial Merc at the entrance of Kerry General Hospital speaks volumes. However, the same cannot be said for the Minister who is trying to spin things by saying that the nurses and myself were protesting at the opening of new Palliative Care unit. That is completely untrue.
 “Nurses the length and breath of this country have been on the front line of a health service that has been in a constant state of crisis during Mary Harney’s time as Health Minister. It has remained in a state of crisis because of Mary Harney and her government’s disgraceful record on health and the only reason why our health services haven’t completely collapsed is because of the brilliant work of nurses and other front line staff.”
Putting the nurses dispute in context, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said it had not come about all of a sudden and is not the preferred option of the nurses. “The nurses would much prefer to be in the hospitals looking after their patients. However they have been forced into action by Minister Harney who has failed to ensure fair working conditions for nurses. Even at this late stage I would urge Mary Harney to cede to the nurses just demands for a 35-hour working week and fair pay,” he stated.
Amid the chaos, the Fianna Fáil/PD Government still refuses to admit that all of this is a direct result of its fundamentally flawed policy and its bungling management of our health services. 

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