Saturday 21 September 2019

O'Brien to stay in his €192,000 job - despite storm over screening

SF claims he'll 'sail into sunset' with lucrative pension package

HSE director general Tony O’Brien entering Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney /Collins
HSE director general Tony O’Brien entering Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney /Collins
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

HSE boss Tony O'Brien intends to stay in his €192,000 job until his planned retirement in August, despite being at the centre of the storm over the cervical cancer scandal.

He is likely to be in line for a lucrative pension but the HSE did not last night clarify what his entitlements will be.

That's despite a claim in the Dáil that Mr O'Brien will "sail into the sunset with a large pension and a hefty gratuity".

Mr O'Brien told the Oireachtas Health Committee that recent events have been a "personal blow" to him. But he also defended the original controversial decision to outsource the examination of cervical test samples to the US while he was at the helm of the screening service a decade ago.

Mr O'Brien has been paid a combined total of more than €1m since he first took on the role as director general designate in 2012. He is currently on a salary of €192,000. The HSE did not respond when asked what his pension entitlements will be when he steps down after his contract expires in August.

Sinn Féin has been pushing for Mr O'Brien to be sacked over the cervical screening controversy.

Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O'Loughlin also said Mr O'Brien should step aside, but her party as a whole hasn't called for his head.

Health Minister Simon Harris last night said that Mr O'Brien's time in charge of the HSE ends in 12 weeks and his priority is for the director general to finish that term.

He said he was pleased to hear Mr O'Brien apologise for the actions of the HSE and his commitment to focus on screening for the remainder of his time in the job.

Speaking earlier in the Dáil, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed: "It is a scandal that Tony O'Brien is left in post for those weeks to sail into the sunset with a large pension and a hefty gratuity, having left a scene of devastation... behind him."

She put it to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that if he was serious about reassuring women, he would "remove that incompetent man". Her remarks prompted Leas-Cheann Comhairle Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher to remind TDs that individuals outside the House were "entitled to fair procedure".

Mr Varadkar said that allegations that have been made must be investigated and said this is why the Government is setting up a statutory inquiry into the screening controversy.

He said this "isn't just about targeting individuals or looking for heads to roll" and that for him the issue was about women and their health.

Mr O'Brien was the chief executive of the National Cancer Screening Programme in 2008 when the decision was made to outsource the testing of cervical screening samples.

He told the Oireachtas Health Committee that he still believes it was the correct thing to do.

He said that at the time there was no potential to provide a national cervical screening programme based on the laboratory system that was in place in Ireland. "The labs were not accredited. Women were waiting for up to a year for their results. Some of those slides were being read on kitchen tables," he added.

In his opening statement, Mr O'Brien said he welcomed the establishment of the statutory inquiry into the screening controversy. He said he began his career in the public service in BreastCheck and for that reason "recent events are indeed a personal blow to me".

Fine Gael's Kate O'Connell asked if he intends to stay on as HSE director general.

Mr O'Brien replied: "Yes, I've already indicated I intend to use the remainder of my time to focus on this issue."

She replied: "With respect, it's a pity you didn't focus on it before now."

Irish Independent

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