ARE hospitals crying wolf in the face of another wave of brutal funding cuts?
Or has it really reached a point where patients are being put in danger by treatment delays?
The action by the heads of a number of major hospitals to write to the HSE in advance of its carve-up of funding for 2014 – with up to €1m in cuts – must be taken seriously.
Doctors are verifying that some cancer patients are having their treatment delayed because of staff shortages and other patients with illnesses that do not evoke the same kind of dread, but are every bit as serious, are also being hit.
Although much of the focus in recent months has been on the rationing of discretionary medical cards, some of the biggest struggles were already under way on hospital wards that were coping with a rising number of patients and shrinking budgets.
The most recent financial report from the HSE to the end of August revealed the extent to which hospitals are in the red. St James's had a €10.3m deficit and University Hospital Galway was down €7.2m.
Although more than 58,600 adults and children were on waiting lists for surgery by mid-year, the hospitals were ordered to implement even more cost-saving measures for the rest of 2013, including not hiring agency workers to cover for absent staff.
But the problem of staff "no shows" remains an Achilles heel for many hospitals, which, along with the rest of the HSE, are beset with problems of absenteeism.
It undermines the strength of part of their argument for a halt to cuts. Around 4,900 health staff across the country, not just in hospitals but also in other HSE-funded services, will not turn up for work today.
It is reckoned that it is costing €250m a year. It is this shirking of duty by so many staff which hospital and other health managers must tackle if patients are not to suffer even more.