Saturday 20 July 2019

Blood clinic scandal takes a dramatic twist


THE BLOOD transfusion scandal has taken a dramatic new twist after internal board documents warned that incomplete information provided to a formal Dáil investigation ran the risk of TDs being seriously misled.

Internal letters within the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS), seen by the Sunday Independent, reveal a bitter split between the Dublin and Cork blood clinics with Leeside officials "astonished and dismayed" at evidence provided to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

The all-party Dáil probe into the blood service was launched with the aim of avoiding a repeat of the Hepatitis C disaster and guarantee an ultra-modern blood network is delivered by the IBTS which replaced the old Blood Transfusion Service Board (BTSB).

Incredibly, leaked documents now reveal TDs were being presented with information to effectively justify and endorse a single national blood test centre.

An internal letter bluntly warns that the Committee's probe requires "full and comprehensive information" with some staff "extremely surprised" their assistance was not sought for the Dáil hearings.

Critically, the Finlay tribunal into the blood contamination scandal demanded a modern new Cork blood clinic.

Last night, Committee Chairman, Batt O'Keeffe (FF), confirmed "alarming documentation" has now come into his possession.

"I will be bringing these documents and the disturbing issues they involve before the Committee as an emergency measure and I will also be forwarding copies to the Minister for Health, Michael Martin, for investigation by his Department," he declared.

Deputy O'Keeffe admitted the documents lent credence to concerns by some Southern Health Board (SHB) members that "a witch-hunt" was being waged over the Hepatitis C scandal currently before the Lindsay tribunal.

The Dáil Chairman stressed that it now appears the BTSB first decided to axe their Cork clinic and then sought expert studies to justify the move.

Such claims, raised by SHB members last summer, were rejected as "ludicrous" by Dublin blood board executives.

A spokesman for the IBTS was unavailable for comment on the latest controversy.

However, a letter to IBTS Chairman, Dr Pat Barker, just last month, from concerned staff bluntly warned: "We are anxious to co-operate fully in order to remove the risk of the Committee being misled, albeit inadvertently, in any manner."

But it's now emerged that Dr Joan Power, the BTSB Munster Director who first uncovered the Hepatitis C scandal, has been dropped or removed from seven major BTSB/IBTS committees since 1997.

The positions excluded to the expert Cork haematologist include the CJD advisory committee, Hep C screening group and even the National Haemovigilance Programme despite recommendations to the contrary by the powerful Irish Medicines Board (IMB).

Dr Power who was unavailable for comment to the Sunday Independent warned in a stark letter to the IBTS last month, obtained by the Sunday Independent, that the failure to allow Cork blood staff brief the Dáil probe in person could prove "potentially damaging."

The documents including correspondence between the old BTSB and its Cork clinic indicates that the St Finbarr's centre in Cork was proposed for downgrading up to a year before an expert study was commissioned which ultimately recommended the action.

A memo issued on March 9, 1999 said Cork analysts were "shocked" to hear of the BTSB decision to axe the clinic just 12 months after St Finbarr's staff were briefed on plans for a multi-million pound greenfield test centre in Cork.

Proposed centralisation was first mooted in October 1998 with the expert study only being launched the following March.

The BTSB/IBTS have formally insisted, since March 1999, on centralising all blood testing in Ireland at their Dublin clinic despite Department of Health, SHB and expert medical opinion that such a move could prove dangerous.

A similar proposal in Liverpool/Manchester was abandoned by British health chiefs.

The Cork clinic was only saved when Education Minister, Michael Martin, who lives less than half a mile from St Finbarr's, became Health Minister earlier this year and requested the IBTS brief the Dáil Committee first.

Former SHB Chairwoman, Dr Catherine Molloy, bluntly warned last spring that Cork surgeons are convinced patients will die if blood testing is axed in Cork. However, the new documents reveal an internal two-year war within the BTSB over moves to shut the Cork centre.

On March 10, 1999, in a stinging rebuke to Dr Power's demands for explanations on the BTSB closure move, BTSB chief executive Martin Hynes refused to provide her with requested financial information.

The BTSB boss ended by warning he would not tolerate attempts "to challenge management authority within the board."

In another letter from Dr Power to the BTSB HQ, she protested at being excluded from key decisions on the future of the Cork clinic and warned she was "shocked" at the effective refusal to justify the decision.

Last night, a spokesperson for the Irish Blood Transfusion Service said: "The board of the BTSB consulted widely in an open and transparent manner on the issue of single-site testing and invited submissions from a wide range of people and organisations which they received. They fully considered all information available to them when they took the decision on single-site testing which they then made unanimously in July 1999."

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