Senior official warned budget cuts could put patients at risk
THE top official in the Department of Health privately warned against excessive cutting in its budget for fear of placing patient safety at risk, the Irish Independent can reveal.
Documents released to the Irish Independent under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, show that concerns were being voiced at the top levels of Government about the cuts being sought.
The letters were released as part of a series of letters exchanged between the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform since the beginning of the year.
In one letter from Ambrose McLoughlin, Secretary General at the Department of Health, he stated clearly that €108m in payroll savings identified on Budget day last October were not achievable.
Mr McLoughlin warned starkly in a letter to Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin's top official, Robert Watt, that it was "important that the full implications" of such cuts are understood by the senior officials.
"Any measures within the health sector to realise this target must be rigorously stress tested and risk managed to minimise the impact on safety of service provision," he said.
Mr McLoughlin said he "fully supported" the Health Service Executive's (HSE) view that cuts cannot be allowed to threaten patient safety.
"The measures must be cognisant of the requirement to provide safe and high quality services to patients," his letter said.
Mr McLoughlin said the challenge of achieving such savings, which was to deliver €666m of a spending reduction in 2014, has been exacerbated by a number of additional difficulties.
These included the impact of having to comply with European rules in relation to the amount of hours junior doctors can work. By reducing their working hours, Mr McLoughlin said there was an increased demand for agency workers.
He also cited the reduction in the numbers working in the health service as having an impact on services. He also highlighted the difficulty for the HSE in filling vacancies, given changes in the health employment market.
Despite his reservations, he did conclude by saying the department and HSE is committed to delivering the savings as requested by Government. Mr Watt's comments were in light of repeated warnings from the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF about the continued overspend in the health area.
Today's revelations come as new Health Minister Leo Varadkar has spoken of the need for a "realistic" health budget for 2015, which he and the HSE can stick to.
Mr Varadkar on taking office was informed that by the end of May show, the HSE was €163m over budget, up from €107.5m in April. He also was told that the numbers waiting to see a specialist for more than a year have also risen from 22,746 to 28,185.