OMBUDSMAN Emily O'Reilly is at loggerheads with Health Minister Mary Harney over the State's failure to provide nursing home care, which could cost several billion euro in compensation payments.
Ms O'Reilly's investigation into the right to nursing home care in Ireland found that the State is facing more than 300 legal cases from people who were denied publicly funded nursing home care.
In a damning report, she said the State had consistently failed to meet its nursing-care obligations over four decades and had deprived "very many people" of their legal entitlements.
It is understood that the Department of Health has estimated privately that the cost of compensating these people for having to pay for expensive private nursing care could be several billion euro. A departmental source confirmed this last night but said the State was "vigorously" contesting the legal actions against it.
In an interview with the Irish Independent last night, Ms O'Reilly accused both the Department of Health and the HSE of showing an "unacceptable disregard" for the law regarding nursing home care.
"You could have two people of similar financial backgrounds lying side by side in a private nursing home. One person was getting the care for free and the other was having to pay for it. There was no equity," she said.
None of the 300 legal cases taken against the State has come to hearing and judgment in the High Court. While the State has settled around 12 of them and paid some level of compensation, it has refused to give details to Ms O'Reilly.
The Ombudsman avoided making recommendations on compensation and settlements for those who were denied state nursing home care due to the state of the public finances.
However, she said: "I think the Department of Health is well aware there is an awful lot riding on this."
According to Ms O'Reilly, the Department of Health and the HSE refused to co-operate with the Ombudsman and did not provide all of the information sought. One of the grounds was that it might put the State at risk from the legal actions being taken against it.
Ms O'Reilly has made it clear that she will not resign in the wake of Ms Harney's dismissal of her report.
"I happen to think this office is doing a very good job," she said. "Whatever this particular minister and Department of Health thinks of this report, I think it will have done a very good job of work for the people of this country."
In her 136-page report, Ms O'Reilly also revealed the extent of the row that has broken out between her and Health Minister Mary Harney.
She said the department had accused her office of acting in "bad faith", "failing to abide by fair procedures", "displaying prejudice and objective bias" and "displaying arrogance in purporting to interpret the law".
Ms O'Reilly said no other minister had ever written to her office in such terms as Ms Harney did last month and that the conduct of her investigation had been marked by an "unprecedented level of rancour and disagreement".
"I think she (Mary Harney) has been a role model for a lot of women and I have a lot of personal admiration for her."
However, she called on Ms Harney to accept the need to "get legal clarity on this (issue)".
More than 1,000 complaints were received by the Ombudsman's office in the past 25 years from people who could not get nursing home care from the State.
Fine Gael's health spokesman Dr James Reilly said the report showed that the Government had failed older people.
Ms O'Reilly is involved in another stand-off with the Government after her report into the 'Lost at Sea' fishing compensation scheme was rejected. But she said that "even if the battle was lost, the war was won".
Last night, Ms Harney said she had fundamental concerns about the way Ms O'Reilly's investigation had been undertaken. She criticised what she claimed was the failure to follow fair procedures, as well as the content, scope and language of the report.
Ms Harney denied that her department had not co-operated with Ms O'Reilly, saying it had acted based on the advice of the Attorney General.
IT comes as no big surprise to learn that the Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly and the Minister for Health Mary Harney are engaged in a bitter row. When she was appointed by the Government in 2003, Ms O'Reilly ceased to be a probing journalist and became a civil servant, and some cynics suggested that the appointment was meant, at least in part, to muzzle a critical voice.