THE extension of potentially life-saving breast cancer screening for women has been sacrificed in a shocking litany of health service cuts of more than €1bn next year.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) reneged on a pledge to extend BreastCheck, the free breast cancer X-ray service, to women aged 64 to 69 years.
Breast screening is among a range of casualties which also include the loss of 75,000 medical cards, cuts in hospital outpatient appointments and a drop in 3,600 health service jobs.
The Government made a pre-election promise that the breast screening, which has saved the lives of thousands of women aged 50 to 64, would also be offered to those in older age groups who are at risk of the disease.
However, HSE chief Tony O'Brien said: "There are things we won't be able to do, including extending the age range of BreastCheck. It would have meant spreading the butter too thinly on the bread."
The grim news was delivered as he unveiled the HSE's €13bn service plan for 2014, setting out how it is having to cut services to make up savings of €619m and tackle a staggering underlying deficit of €419m.
The Irish Cancer Society said it was very concerned at the decision, pointing out the screening was expected to be rolled out next year and was a commitment in the Programme for Government.
"The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organisation found that quality screening mammography carried out every two years in women 50 to 69 years of age should reduce their risk for death from breast cancer by about 35pc.
"The extension of the BreastCheck programme has been promised for many years and we are disappointed that it now looks like this will not happen next year," said a spokeswoman.
The dark cloud of uncertainty over many services next year was heightened, as the HSE expressed doubts over its ability to meet its own financial targets, saying €108m in "unspecified pay savings" has been included in its calculations, even though it does not yet know how this will be achieved.
Mr O'Brien said they will be trawling different areas in order to make up the €619m in savings.
A sum of €7.5m is earmarked from hospital reconfiguration which could see the closure of more A&E departments, as well as transferring services within hospital groups.
The service plan points to around €230m in cuts in hospitals next year, even though their overall allocation will increase by 2pc. Asked how hospitals can avoid risks to patients as they come under increasing financial strain, the HSE's Director of Acute Hospitals Ian Carter said the budgets would have to be "managed" to ensure safe care and they would have to live within their means.
Despite delays faced by thousands of public patients needing to see a specialist, the number of outpatient attendances will be cut by 176,711 and there will be a cut of 3,093 in slots for public patients in need of admission for non-emergency care to hospital.