Sunday 8 December 2019

After a week to forget Varadkar faces tougher days ahead

Health Minister Leo Varadkar.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar.

Eilish O'Regan and John Downing

Health Minister Leo Varadkar will meet 50 public hospital managers today for a crunch meeting on reining in spending - while at the same time trying to improve patient care.

The first face-to-face meeting between Mr Varadkar and the hospital chiefs will take place in Farmleigh House and signal the ministerial honeymoon is over.

It comes as bargaining intensifies between the Health Department and officials working for Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin over €500m in extra funding sought to cover a health funding shortfall for this year.

Mr Varadkar is also expected to shortly get the report of the expert group set up in the wake of the discretionary medical cards controversy. As expected, it will not list illnesses which give people an automatic card.

Instead, it suggests widening the existing grounds of discretion for those with high medical bills and other illness-related costs.

The Minister needs to show improvements in performance of hospitals which are struggling to cope with reduced budgets, patients on trolleys and surgery delayed. Hospitals were €100m in the red at the end of May but the HSE has ominously not posted updated figures in three months.

The Health Minister had a difficult time last week which included a public rebuke from the Taoiseach. Mr Varadkar has since insisted that he will continue to defend the health service's needs for proper funding, including a special top-up budget of €500m for this year.

Government sources said talks about this were continuing at official level with periodic contact between Ministers Varadkar and Howlin. A compromise must be agreed before the Budget, which is four weeks from tomorrow on Tuesday, October 14, but officials said it is not possible to predict when a deal can be struck.

Amid the tough negotiations on next year's health budget, Mr Varadkar has already stated in a leaked departmental memo that cutbacks "cannot happen".

Irish Independent

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