CASH-strapped hospitals will have to send some patients home on weekend breaks as part of a new round of draconian health cuts.
The hospitals, which must slash €35m in spending on agency staff and overtime before the end of the year, will have to shut some wards at weekends to save money.
The drastic measure is being implemented as part of €130m in cuts across the service, hitting the elderly and people with a disability particularly hard.
The HSE yesterday admitted the shortage of staff would mean more hospitals will be forced to operate "five-day" wards.
It means patients who are assessed as clinically suitable will go home for the weekend and return to the hospital on Monday.
A spokesman for Dr Reilly, who has not made any public appearances for more than five weeks, insisted the minister was in touch with officials and that he was "working almost full-time".
Senior HSE executive Laverne McGuinness was among those left to break the bad news.
The €130m menu of health cuts announced yesterday included:
- A €35m reduction in agency staff and overtime.
- 600,000 home help hours axed.
- A €10m cut from personal assistant hours for people with a disability.
- Removal of drugs Glucosamine, Orlistat and Omega-3 Triglycerides from list of reimbursable drugs list.
- And €25.5m savings in medical equipment, office expenses and travel.
- A cut of €1.7m will mean a loss of 200 home care packages a month.
Ms McGuinness warned the HSE had to take action as it was facing a €500m deficit by the end of the year and at the same time must cope with a rise in demand for services.
Agency staff and overtime are in the firing line for cuts to be implemented before the end of the year.
And the budget for the health service will be cut even further in 2013, at a time when demand for services is continuing to rise and the population is ageing.
Areas which were not cut -- for now -- included medical card eligibility, staff salaries and nursing home subsidies under the Fair Deal scheme.
She added: "Every effort has been made to target areas that do not impact on direct patient or client services."
Nearly €11m will be cut from home help services, reducing the hours key workers provide to elderly and disabled people in their homes by 600,000.
Meanwhile, €10m is being removed from the budget funding personal assistants who carry out essential tasks for disabled people who are living at home.
The scale of the cuts was condemned by many, including the disability organisation Inclusion Ireland.
Chief executive Paddy Keogh said the reductions in personal assistants would "push people back into their own homes".
John Dolan, chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland, said the organisation was shocked by the scale of the cuts, which contradicted the stated policy of the Government.
Liam Woods, the HSE's director of finance, said the HSE currently had a deficit of €259m and it hoped to make up the rest of the funding through income from health insurance companies of around €125m -- and surplus from the €75m allocated to the National Treatment Purchase Fund.