HSE forced to remove details of billions in payments from website
The Health Service Executive (HSE) has been forced to remove from its website details of state payments running into billions of euro to thousands of primary care health professionals.
This follows the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) threatening enforcement action against the HSE unless payment details to individual dentists through the medical card system were removed from the website.
DPC senior compliance officer Nicola Coogan told the HSE that it was a serious issue and that it was the intention of the Office to take whatever enforcement steps it deemed necessary if the payments for dentists were not removed.
In response, the HSE has not only removed details of payments to dentists but to other health professionals contracted to the HSE: GPs, pharmacists and ophthalmologists.
In the move, the HSE has removed details for the years 2011, 2010 and 2009. The HSE confirmed yesterday that it has ceased publication of payments.
The threatened action by the DPC followed a complaint to it from the chief executive of the Irish Dental Union, Fintan Hourihan, who argued that there was no statutory basis or public interest justification for the publication of the payments.
In a letter to the HSE, released through the Freedom of Information Act , Mr Hourihan wrote that his members were "concerned that they have not given consent" to the publication.
In a letter to the Data Commissioner, Patrick Burke of the HSE's Primary Care Reimbursement Service (PCRS) stated: "In essence, we are publishing this information in the interests of transparency so that the taxpayer is aware of the expenditure of public funds to dental practices.
Mr Burke added: "We receive a relatively large number of FOI requests for this type of information and we are trying to be up front and transparent in relation to its availability."
Mr Burke accepted that there is no specific legislative basis in the Health Acts for the publication of the information, but that the HSE relies on the general principle of transparency in publishing.
He added that the HSE had no particular difficult in removing the information from its website as long it can continue to disclose the information through the Freedom of Information Act. In response, Ms Coogan stated "as there is no statutory basis for the publication of this data, then such processing would not be in compliance with the Data Protection Acts".
A HSE spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that it no longer publishes payments to primary care contractors on its website but would continue to meet its obligations under the FOI acts.
Mr Hourihan said that the publication of payments "presented a misleading impression when viewed in isolation and suggested dentists were earning inflated levels of income when in fact the payments were to cover the cost for treatments already dispensed".
A spokeswoman for the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) representing doctors declined to comment.