THE HSE is employing a fulltime children’s chef who has no kitchen to cook in – and is paying a local bar to provide the meals instead.
The chef was transferred from the old children’s mental health unit in Galway to a new €8.8m centre. But the kitchen in the unit was not equipped for cooking hot food.
An Irish Independent investigation has revealed that the HSE has continued to pay the chef his €46,000 annual salary.
At the same time, it has paid a total of €155,000 to a local bar to supply breakfast, lunches, dinners and snacks to the 20 children in the unit.
The bizarre situation has been ongoing in the child mental health unit in Merlin Park Hospital in Galway for the past two years.
The HSE denied that the chef ’s only role in the child mental health unit was to serve food.
The health agency said the chef ’s other duties included taking daily orders for food, keeping daily food safety records, maintaining three kitchenettes (small food areas) in the wards in the unit and keeping the wards tidy.
But even though local HSE managers know the solution to the problem, no action has been taken so far.
The original aim was to allow the chef to cook in the Merlin Park Hospital kitchen, which is on the same grounds as the child mental health unit.
The HSE has confirmed that the chef has "no objection" to using the hospital kitchen.
But two years on, negotiations on getting the chef into the hospital kitchen have yet to start. The two sides involved – the management of the child mental health unit, and the management of the Merlin Park Hospital – must agree on what food will be provided from the kitchen and how much it will cost.
Negotiations are due to start on moving the chef into the main hospital kitchen when a new catering manager is appointed for Merlin Park Hospital.
But the revelation of the €155,000 food bill over the past two years while a full-time chef was employed on the payroll will raise questions about why local management in the Merlin Park unit are taking so long to solve the problem.
It comes at a time when mental health services for children and teenagers are under severe pressure, with more than 2,000 of them waiting for appointments. Almost 10,000 young people were referred to the mental services last year.
The unit in Merlin Park, which has 20 beds for children aged between 10 and 18, has "almost 100pc" occupancy at the moment.
Previously, children with mental health problems in the west were cared for at St Anne's Children's Centre in Taylor's Hill in Galway city.
But this was shut down once the new purpose-built unit was opened in the grounds of Merlin Park Hospital, 8km away, at a cost of €8.8m.
The HSE denied that having a "satellite kitchen", which can only be used for the cold storage of foods instead of a full kitchen, was a planning oversight.
According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the HSE put the contract for supplying meals to the children in the unit out to tender in 2010.
The contract was awarded to Bodkins Bar in the Kingvalley Hotel on the Dublin Road, which is located just one kilometre away. It cost the HSE €106,855 in 2011.
But after the HSE decided to limit the variety of food offered on the menus, the cost was reduced by more than 50pc to €48,342 last year.
The bar is required to provide healthy food, with fresh fruit every day and fish twice a week.
Irish breakfasts are only available at the weekend.
There are also detailed requirements on the contract for the food to be transported at the correct temperature from the bar to the child mental health unit.
The quality of the food provided under the contract was praised by the Inspector of Mental Health in its 2011 inspection – which was carried out without prior warning.
"There was a menu and choice of food at mealtimes. Meals were obtained from a local hotel and were of good quality," it said.
The HSE has insisted that it has secured value for money for taxpayers by negotiating down the cost of the food contract.
It denied that the situation was complicated by the fact that the child mental health unit was in its community care section, whereas the hospital kitchen was part of its acute care (hospital) section.