'I want to build three new hospitals and offer free GP care for children under 18'
Simon Harris has unveiled radical plans to tackle the scandal over waiting times, writes Philip Ryan
Health Minister Simon Harris has said he wants to build three new public hospitals which would carry out only non-emergency operations as part of his attempt to end the scandalous waiting times faced by patients.
The new hospitals would ease the pressure on the health service and dramatically reduce delays for treatments such as hip, knee and cataract operations.
The minister's proposal will form a key plank of his pledge to slash waiting lists and introduce universal healthcare within the next 10 years.
"I want to be the Minister for Health who introduced universal healthcare in this country," he said, before adding: "That's quite a significant statement."
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Harris also promised to introduce free GP care for all children under 18 within five years and significantly reduce hospital charges and drug costs.
The minister said he wanted to see the salaries paid to Irish nurses and doctors compete with those earned by their counterparts in the US, Canada and Australia where medical professionals can earn multiples of what they are paid here.
However, despite his promise to overhaul the health service, he was unable to commit to reducing the number of sick people forced to wait for treatment on hospital trolleys this coming winter.
"I will commit that we will do everything we possibly can to put in place measures but I will not mislead people or create a false impression. The pressure in our emergency departments is going to continue unless we do things differently," he said.
Mr Harris also revealed that he had been "taken aback" by how "open and warm" Leo Varadkar had been toward him after he campaigned against the new Taoiseach in the Fine Gael leadership campaign. And he insisted there was no territorial war between himself and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy over the Fair Deal scheme. However, he insisted it was his "priority and absolute job" to protect the interests of the elderly and said any changes to Fair Deal that helped housing would be only a "secondary" benefit.
Mr Harris's health reforms are centred on the recommendations set out in the cross-party Slainte Care report. The report is a 10-year 'road map' to deliver a better health service which was signed off on by the Future of Health Committee before the Dail recess.
"Never before in the history of the State that I'm aware of have we had a report on health that was written by all political parties for the next 10 years," the minister said while speaking in his Department of Health office last week.
The report focuses on pushing non-emergency treatments toward primary and community care facilities. Mr Harris wants conditions such as diabetes treated in primary care centres. He also wants the introduction of more advance nurse practitioners who can help take the burden off doctors in hospitals and in the community.
"One of the reasons people are waiting so long for procedures in our hospitals is because things are being provided in our hospitals that in other countries would be provided in the community," he said.
The waiting times faced by sick people, especially young children, for operations and procedures is an issue that has shocked the country in recent years. Mr Harris believes the way to address the delays is to build three new hospitals specifically tasked with carrying out non-emergency procedures.
"I have to go through all the normal process in the capital plans and all that type of stuff but I personally believe we need two or three elective hospitals over the next decade," he said.
Mr Harris insisted that he was "mandated" to provide free GP care for all children under 18 within five years and he intended to do this in collaboration with the medical unions. He dismissed suggestions by doctors that parents are needlessly bringing children into GP surgeries because the service is free.
"I don't subscribe to 'blame the patient'. A hard-working parent at the end of the day doesn't want to be sitting in a GP surgery because they got free GP care. They are sitting there because they are genuinely concerned or because they felt there wasn't a service elsewhere," he said.
Asked if the negative spin against him by supporters of Mr Varadkar during the Fine Gael leadership contest had made his ministerial job difficult, Mr Harris said: "It's a very fair question and the genuine answer is that I have been taken aback actually by how open and warm the Taoiseach has been toward my participation in Government and engaging with me.
"In a leadership contest, you have to take a side but from my point of view, the moment the contest was over and Leo Varadkar was leader of Fine Gael, he was my leader too and he is the Taoiseach and I moved on very, very quickly and I am genuinely very pleased that the Taoiseach and his people have as well."
He admitted he was "frustrated" by some of the spin directed against him but laughed at other comments made privately by some colleagues about him during the leadership campaign.
He insisted the Taoiseach had "substance coming out his ears" and denied Mr Varadkar was obsessed with photo opportunities of him swimming and jogging.
"The fact we have a Taoiseach out promoting healthy living, as Minister for Health is something I'm very happy with," he said.
Mr Harris said he had been "genuinely blown away" by the Taoiseach's willingness to debate issues and his attention to policy detail.
He insisted he was not slapping down Mr Murphy when he spoke out about his proposal for the Fair Deal scheme two week ago. The Housing Minister's plan to encourage older people in nursing homes to rent their homes sparked panic among groups representing the elderly and he spent a number of days clarifying his position.
"There were some headlines in newspapers that I read that suggested there would be an imposition put on older people and that will not be the case and was never intended to be the case," Mr Harris said.
"I felt duty bound to be very clear to old people that any changes to the Fair Deal scheme will be done with their interests at heart, and if there was secondary benefit to another major issue facing the Government, that would be really very welcome."