Downgrade of Portlaoise hospital set to take place next year
The downgrading of Portlaoise Hospital's A&E department will take place early next year - making it certain the controversial plan will be a bitter election issue.
The HSE announced yesterday that the troubled hospital, where five babies died over several years, will no longer carry out complex surgery and patients will be transferred to St James's Hospital and Tullamore Hospital.
It is also to reduce the opening hours of the A&E, leaving it operating from 8am to 8pm in the interests of patient safety.
Dr Susan Reilly, head of the Midlands Hospital Group, said the transfer of surgery would take place shortly. No specific timetable has been set for changes to the A&E but it is expected to be implemented early next year.
The move follows last month's damning Hiqa report which highlighted ongoing safety risks in the hospital and condemned the failure of the HSE to respond to previous warnings over the years.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar said last night: "The Government is committed to securing and further developing Portlaoise Hospital. Any change to its services will be undertaken in a planned and orderly manner with a view to maximising patient safety and improving patient outcomes, and not for financial reasons. This will take account of existing patient numbers, demands in other hospitals."
He said maternity, acute medical and paediatric services will continue, and that routine day surgery "is likely to be expanded".
"Patient safety and outcome must come first and, following concerns raised by Hiqa over the potentially unsafe low volume of complex operations carried out at the hospital, the Hospital Group has decided to move complex surgery to bigger centres," he said, but denied it amounted to "downgrading".
The move is expected to leave Government party candidates in the next general election on the backfoot, and open the way for an Independent hospital candidate to steal votes.
Labour party Senator John Whelan said it was a clear downgrading of the hospital and warned it is the only emergency department between Naas and Limerick.
"I have no difficulty with the transfer of a small number of complex surgeries but I am vehemently opposed to the slow but inevitable closure of the A&E."
Local Fine Gael TD and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, who previously opposed moves to downgrade the hospital, said: "I welcome the fact that a period of consultation is underway."
The Hiqa report said surgeons were not seeing enough patients needing complex operations to ensure safety.
The A&E unit has also been beset with problems trying to recruit doctors and a HSE internal report said it should be shut down last year. There are now major fears that other over-stretched A&E departments will not be able to cope when Portlaoise's opening hours are reduced. Dr Reilly insisted the hospital is currently safe.