Tuesday 21 October 2014

HSE pulled plug on GP website over cost

Health Minister and former IMO boss were nominee shareholders in firm that received €2.3m in State grants

Published 27/04/2014 | 02:30

Health Minister James Reilly

The Health Service Executive pulled State funding for a website run by the Irish Medical Organisation in which Health Minister James Reilly was a director after an audit found that the running costs were too high.

The website, MyGP.ie, received more than €2.3m in State grants over four years, but the IMO and the HSE have refused to reveal why funding was pulled because of a confidentiality agreement.

However, the Sunday Independent has learnt that the HSE stopped the payments because it believed some of the bills associated with the website were excessive.

The State started funding the website in 2000 and it was launched in 2004. A year later, the newly-formed HSE noted the unusually high bills associated with the website and refused to pay any more invoices submitted by the union, according to medical sources. In one case the IMO billed the State for more than €80,000 to fund an editorial board for the website. The cost of maintaining and updating the content of the website was believed to be in excess of €700,000 while other costs such as site development and hosting fees were also questioned, the sources said.

Separately, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the IMO threatened to sue the HSE over its refusal to pay the outstanding invoices associated with the website, but negotiated a confidential settlement in 2008.

The disclosures will raise questions for Dr Reilly, who was a director of the website company, MyGP.ie, from 2003 until 2006, the period in which its use of State funds was challenged by the HSE. The Health Minister was president of the IMO in 2005 when the funding was withdrawn.

Dr Reilly was also joint shareholder of the company, along with the IMO's former chief executive George McNeice, whose €9m pension package sparked a crisis in the doctors' union last year.

A spokesman has said that Dr Reilly was a nominee shareholder in the company and was not a beneficial owner of the site. "As we have previously stated, Dr James Reilly did not receive a benefit from the MyGp.ie company. The arbitration between the HSE and the IMO related to MyGp.ie resulted in a binding confidentiality agreement."

The IMO declined to comment.

The disclosures will also add to debate in the doctors union over its financial affairs, as GP members prepare to vote at their annual conference in Kildare this weekend on whether the past governance of the IMO should be investigated.

The finances of the IMO have come under the spotlight since it was revealed that McNeice was paid a salary of €500,000 a year by the union and was entitled to a €20m pension when he retired in 2012. His pension was later negotiated down to just over €9m. The Revenue Commissioners separately audited the IMO last year and the union reached a tax settlement of €118,000 last month.

The IMO set up the website to provide impartial advice to patients and doctors about prescribing cheaper drugs. It was paid €996,000 out of the health budget between May 2000 and the end of 2001; €375,000 in 2002 and €660,000 in 2004, the year that the website was launched by then health minister, Micheal Martin. The IMO was not given the grants directly but invoices associated with the costs of setting up the website were submitted to to a section in the Department of Health.

The HSE was set up in 2005 and reviewed the invoices submitted by the IMO. It is understood that the payments stopped in 2005. The HSE and the IMO went into mediation and reached a "confidential" settlement in 2008.

Following a Freedom of Information request from this paper last year, the HSE asked the IMO to agree to release the details of the inquiries into mygp.ie. The IMO blocked their release, citing the confidentiality agreement.

Certain documents have been released to this newspaper, following an appeal.

They show that as the HSE's review continued throughout 2006, the IMO threatened legal action. In February 2007, an official in the Department of Health wrote that "the IMO wrote to the HSE suggesting that they may take legal action in regard to the MyGP website due to the HSE refusal to pay for certain outstanding invoices".

The correspondence also suggests that the Department of Health limited the information it released about the investigation to the media and politicians. According to one internal email in 2008, an official in the Department of Health advised a colleague to respond to a parliamentary question:

"No further funding has been provided for this website since 2004... Since then, the HSE has engaged with the IMO on issues of mutual concern regarding this website and has agreed to explore these issues through non-binding mediation. I wouldn't go further than that. It is up to the IMO to respond... and they haven't done so to date."

The correspondence shows that the IMO and the HSE entered mediation in April 2008, with legal teams on both sides. Among those who questioned the use of the State funds by the website was the Taoiseach as far back as 2005, when he was in Opposition and two years before James Reilly joined Fine Gael. At that time, Mary Harney, who was then health minister, said the site, along with other drug savings initiatives, was under review by her department.

Fianna Fail health spokesperson Billy Kelleher this weekend renewed his call on the IMO to allow the findings of the HSE investigation to be published.

Sunday Independent

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