Cash-strapped HSE still pays out €20m for legal advice
Authority has failed to cut huge bill despite creating its own law office
THE cash-strapped Health Service Executive (HSE) is continuing to spend €20m on external legal advisers, the Irish Independent has learned.
This is despite forking out €360,000 to run its own legal office earlier this year.
The HSE created a National Legal Service Department in March of this year to provide professional advice to the organisation.
But the office has failed to reduce payments for external legal advice and the HSE is continuing to pay huge fees to a network of solicitors across the country.
The high spend comes as fears mount that services in regional hospitals will be scaled back in a bid to save money.
The HSE says legal staff are working in the new legal services department to provide advice at "maximum value".
Staff in the office also manage all third-party legal services provided to the HSE.
But despite the new facility, the HSE has failed to reduce its massive external legal bill.
The HSE is the largest public- sector purchaser of legal services in the state, with 34 law firms receiving payments for professional services each year.
More than 56pc of this spend relates to the area of childcare.
However, patient campaigners and opposition politicians last night said the legal bill was not acceptable while hospitals were suffering severe cutbacks.
"The figure spent on external legal advice is huge," Irish Patients Association chairman Stephen McMahon told the Irish Independent.
"I am calling on Health Minister Mary Harney to provide a detailed report on the effectiveness of the HSE's legal advice procurement process."
Labour health spokeswoman Jan O'Sullivan described it as a "huge waste of taxpayer's money".
She added: "It is clear the emphasis is on protecting the HSE rather than the patient."
However, the HSE insisted the amount spent on an external network of solicitors was necessary to deliver frontline health and support services.
A spokeswoman pointed out the HSE had a "diverse, voluminous and complex range" of legal-service requirements.
"The most appropriate model of delivering accessible legal services is through a national network of solicitor firms," she said.
"The Office of Legal Services oversees these outsourced services with a consistent management approach," she added.
"There are many advantages for the HSE in having its own legal department so there are currently no plans to alter this arrangement."