Friday 23 February 2018

HSE chief breached guidelines in previous role

MAEVE SHEEHAN

Watchdog questioned O'Brien's financial management abilities

THE new head of the Health Service Executive was criticised by the State spending watchdog and the Department of Health for breaching financial guidelines in a past role working for another health body.

Tony O'Brien, 49, was handpicked by the Health Minister James Reilly as director general of the health service last week at a time of serious financial pressures.

However, questions were raised over Mr O'Brien's own financial management skills after an investigation by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) three years ago.

Mr O'Brien was chief executive of the National Cancer Screening Service (NCSS) when the C&AG conducted an audit of its financial affairs in 2009.

Under his stewardship, the agency was faced with a litany of criticisms over financial issues for various breaches of financial procedure.

The C&AG found that the agency had drawn down capital funds from the Department of Health using invoices that were not due for payment. This was in breach of guidelines.

On the advice of solicitors, most of the capital funds drawn down were transferred to an escrow account until they were to be paid out, which was also in breach of funding arrangements. The funds in the escrow account did appear in the accounts of the NCSS, which had not been approved by either the Department or the agency's board.

The C&AG concluded that while all the funds were used for their intended purpose, it was "important that true and fair accounts be rendered in respect of all activities and that overall State cash resources be released only in line with the maturity of liabilities".

The Department of Health also raised serious concerns about the financial affairs at the NCSS under Mr O'Brien's stewardship.

The accounting officer told the C&AG that he "found it necessary during 2008 and 2009 to raise and pursue" with the NCSS a "number of serious issues in relation to its financial procedures".

These included "inappropriate" use of revenue funding for capital purposes, drawing down more funding than was needed from the Department, and excess of expenditure and inappropriate holding of cash balances. It also raised the failure to seek the minister's sanction before taking out a lease on a property, providing inaccurate reporting on financial matters to the Department.

A spokesman said that the minister was "aware" of the issues about Mr O'Brien but was "satisfied" with his "wide experience" and "strong track record".

"While the criticism is clear, the C&AG makes no suggestion that funds were used other than for their intended purpose. There is no suggestion of impropriety in the spending of the money, rather criticism of procedural shortcomings," he said.

He added that Mr O'Brien "took responsibility for his actions" which were "informed by legal advice".

He noted that former health minister Mary Harney went on to appoint Mr O'Brien to be chairman of the National Cancer Registry Board.

He said the Department's accounting officer -- who raised concerns with the C&AG -- later appointed Mr O'Brien to the management committee of the Department of Health.

He said Mr O'Brien's management of people and resources in his various roles in the Department had resulted in measurable progress to the benefit of patients.

Sunday Independent

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