5,000 HSE staff still call in sick daily at cost of €284m a year
MORE than 5,000 health service staff call in sick each day at a cost of €284m a year, new figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal.
Despite pledges by the Government to cut down on sick days across the public service, absenteeism among Health Service Executive (HSE) staff has worsened since the Coalition took office.
Last year, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin pinpointed absenteeism as a major problem, claiming some state employees felt sick pay was an entitlement to be taken, whether they were ill or not.
However, new data shows rates of sick leave in the HSE are up on the previous year for each month between February and October 2011. The absenteeism is estimated to cost the HSE about €284m a year. The increases reversed a short-lived improvement in 2010.
Absenteeism rates climbed to an average of 4.98pc last year among the HSE's staff of 104,000. This compared with a rate of 4.80pc in 2010.
The increase in sick rates comes as sections of the service are making plans to cope with the departure of staff taking early retirement this month.
The worst-hit hospital for having staff too sick to work, according to the most recent figures, is Mullingar Regional, where 56 of the facility's 754 staff were absent on average each day last October.
The neighbouring Portlaoise Hospital had a rate of 7.39pc and was without an average of 43 of its 595 staff daily.
And Limerick Maternity Hospital -- which is set to lose around 16 midwives to early retirement this month -- is down an average of 20 workers daily.
The absenteeism rate will come as a major headache for Health Minister James Reilly as he promised this week to put in place a "dynamic contingency plan" to cope with retirements from the health service. A spokesman for the minister said he was anxious to see the "most effective possible attendance management" throughout the service and a target to reduce absenteeism to 3.5pc was again set this year.
"It's up to each hospital manager to have a contingency plan in their area. Patients should not suffer," he said.
Around one in 10 of those who are off sick in the HSE has no sick cert, despite moves to tighten up on this.
The HSE rates compare with an average of 2.58pc absenteeism in the private sector and rates of 3.58pc in large companies with more than 50 employees.
The rate in the civil service is 5pc, although it rose to 5.22pc in the Department of Health last year, up from 4.38pc in 2010.
The HSE was unable to say why absenteeism rates had deteriorated last year or explain why it is further away than ever from meeting a target to have no more than 3.5pc of staff off work at any one time. The problem extends beyond hospitals and also affects community health services in areas such as east Limerick, Wicklow, Dublin west, Mayo and Westmeath.
The impact of absent staff is even higher than official figures indicate because they do not take into account those who are on maternity leave, carers' leave or other statutory approved absences.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said absenteeism remained a "key item on hospital management team agendas" and monthly absenteeism reports were given to each section to highlight "areas in need of most attention".
Staff are required to produce a medical cert after two days and those who are on frequent short-term illnesses should be subject to a return-to-work discussion and review and monitoring meetings.
This is followed by return-to-work reviews, where absenteeism is ongoing and may lead to sick pay being withheld or disciplinary procedures.