Sunday 17 November 2019

PAC plan to reform HSE is dismissed by Howlin

Minister's relationship with watchdog strained as he shoots down proposals

DANIEL McCONNELL Political Correspondent

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has roundly rejected and "dismissed" a number of recommendations made by the State's watchdog Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on financial management failures within the HSE, documents obtained by the Sunday Independent reveal.

The strong rejection of many of the committee's findings and recommendations is the latest in a series of high-level spats between the committee and Mr Howlin, and relations between Mr Howlin and several government members of the PAC are "extremely poor".

John McGuinness, the chairman of the PAC, last night said he was "concerned that the in-depth analysis and conclusive findings of the committee have been dismissed so easily, and it shows the lack of respect government departments have for the PAC and the Comptroller and Auditor General".

In March, following a series of hearings and failures identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the PAC produced a damning 37-page report into how the HSE budgetary failures in 2012 occurred, which resulted in the Department of Health requiring a €360m end-of-year bailout.

The report contained a series of damning findings into deficient "financial management infrastructures, budgetary control and HR issues", and made 16 separate recommendations to Mr Howlin in order to prevent such failures from occurring again.

However, documents sent by Mr Howlin's secretary-general Robert Watt to the PAC chairman, Mr McGuinness, obtained by this newspaper, show that Mr Howlin has rejected the vast majority of the recommendations made.

* Given the large budget overrun, the committee recommended Mr Howlin's department review how it came to determine the 2012 HSE budget – but that was rejected.

"The minister does not accept this recommendation. It is clear that delays in the agreement with the pharmaceutical industry, the decision by the Minister for Health not to proceed with legislation in relation to private patients, and pressures on services, particularly on the medical card and hospital sector, resulted in the need for a supplementary estimate in 2012," the document said.

* A recommendation by the PAC that the HSE should publish the names of those hospital consultants who hold up the collection of income due to the HSE was also rejected by Mr Howlin, on the grounds of legal advice.

"The HSE has decided to pursue alternative management options to improve its income collection," the document stated.

* A separate recommendation that Mr Howlin's department should conduct a benchmarking exercise in relation to hospital consultants' pay was also rejected, as he has already introduced emergency legislation to reduce the pay of public servants including hospital consultants.

* Another recommendation to review the practice of paying allowances to retiring consultants in lieu of untaken rest days was rejected as "measures are currently in place to address the issue of concern", the document said.

However, a Labour Court recommendation aimed at resolving this issue remains in dispute between the consultants and the State.

* Another recommendation that the HSE establish the number of posts that could be filled directly rather than rely on agency workers was also dismissed by Mr Howlin who said they cannot convert agency use into recruitment due to the moratorium on recruitment.

Mr Howlin did accept in principle a recommendation that where a budget estimate is predicated on the outcome of future talks, the relevant line committee should be informed as to how those talks are progressing.

This weekend, senior sources within Mr Howlin's department said they did not expect any budget overruns in health this year, despite the very challenging financial situation faced by Minister for Health James Reilly.

Irish Independent

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