HEALTH Minister James Reilly is running for cover after claims that he authorised two top officials to refuse questions on the overrun in health spending at a high-powered Dail committee.
But Dr Reilly defended department secretary general Ambrose McLoughlin and HSE chief executive Tony O'Brien from allegations of "stonewalling" at the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
When asked by the Irish Independent yesterday how he viewed the stand of his officials, Dr Reilly said they acted "within the limitations of their remit" by not going into areas of current policy. "They are duty-bound to do so," he said.
But PAC chairman John McGuinness said the committee was unable to get answers about a deficit currently running at €374m, and which is projected to grow to at least €500m by year-end.
"I believe that what we witnessed on Tuesday was the outcome of a concerted attempt by senior public servants to curtail the work of the PAC, blocking public scrutiny of the unfolding disaster in the health service in the process," he said.
The refusal of the health chiefs to answer questions on the spending overrun sparked a walkout in protest by committee member, Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming.
Party health spokesman Billy Kelleher said the officials' performance at the committee was "extraordinary".
"The most senior officials in health being used as some sort of human shield to protect Dr Reilly is a whole new approach," he told the Irish Independent.
"At every level of government, from the Taoiseach down, there has been a concerted effort to evade, misdirect, misinterpret and generally block every attempt to get the truth of Dr Reilly's mismanagement of the health service."
Dr Reilly rejected claims Dr McLoughlin and Mr O'Brien acted in a disgraceful manner.
"There is nothing remotely disgraceful about public servants acting within their remit set out for them within their job description."
He said there was no question of disciplining the officials "because they did nothing wrong".
But Dr Reilly refused to say if he was aware in advance that the officials were going to challenge the committee's right to ask certain questions.
But the co-ordination between the health chiefs in their controversial opening statement, where they said they would not answer questions on policy, was confirmed last night.
The HSE said its parliamentary affairs department worked closely with departmental officials "as is the usual process prior to all appearances before the PAC".
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was also quizzed in the Dail about the threat to frontline patient services as the HSE tries to reduce its massive deficit by the end of the year.
Mr Kenny said the HSE was a completely dysfunctional organisation which had been formed in 2004 by squashing the former health boards together. He said that nobody had ever said the system would be transformed in 12 months.
"What is happening is the start of a generational reform of the health system," he said.
Mr Kenny's comments came after the HSE confirmed that its budget overrun at the end of last month stood at €374m.
At the end of August the figure was €329m.