Watchdog slams 'rotten' HSE's culture of secrecy
Health service accused of protecting own interests
OMBUDSMAN Emily O'Reilly last night blasted the excessively secretive HSE and claimed there is "something rotten" within its system.
The state watchdog accused the HSE of leading her on an "Alice-in-Wonderland trip" around its legal system to obtain basic files and information.
The HSE accounted for more than a quarter of the complaints from the public dealt with by the ombudsman's office in 2009, according to its annual report published yesterday.
Some of the hospital treatment cases were "shocking and unacceptable", Ms O'Reilly said.
Launching the report, the ombudsman said she had experienced "considerable difficulties" when trying to access files in the HSE.
"We were led on what I can only describe as a sort of an 'Alice-in-Wonderland' trip around the legal system as the HSE effectively tried to prevent a report being published," she said, in relation to a forthcoming report on payments to guardians.
Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan is also "blue in the face" dealing with the HSE, Ms O'Reilly said. This, she said, was evident when trying to get figures on the number of children who died in state care and getting files provided to an investigation team.
"There is a huge issue around the excessive secrecy and legalism of the HSE and it strikes me that it is a cultural thing within the HSE," Ms O'Reilly said.
For a body that is there to represent the public's interests, Ms O'Reilly said it sometimes sought to protect its own interests. This, she said, was "very wrong".
"It's as if the HSE lives in a parallel universe," she said.
And she claimed that even the Department of Health and Health Minister Mary Harney often struggled to get information from the HSE -- sometimes information which, in the past, was routinely available.
The ombudsman said she was 100pc certain that there were legal mechanisms available to the HSE to release information. "There is something rotten within that system," she added.
Responding to the report, Joe Devlin, of the HSE, said it regretted if what he called "service users" didn't have "a good outcome" in the country's hospitals. But he denied there was any "culture of secrecy".
The HSE published its own complaint data and wanted to ensure that patients and their relatives could complain about their experiences, he said.
He insisted the HSE was more than willing to co-operate with the ombudsman and to learn from complaints registered. Failings occurred in health-care systems across the world and for that, he said, the HSE "puts its hands up".
"I don't have an issue with the substantive findings of the report. We are working hard to implement all of the recommendations in full that she has made," he added.
In a statement last night, the HSE said it was "very disappointed that the Office of the Ombudsman has chosen to so graphically characterise the obligation of HSE staff to comply with these laws as an attempt to block and suppress information".
The HSE said it made every effort to be as transparent as possible in all areas and make as much information as possible available to the public.
Complaints were on the increase, in line with the organisation's efforts to encourage service users to express their complaints and compliments.
In all, a record 2,873 complaints were made to the ombudsman's office last year -- the highest number recorded in over 10 years.
Across the civil service, the number of complaints increased by 2.8pc and accounted for over 40pc of the total complaints.
Local authorities accounted for 30pc of the complaints, the HSE 26.3pc and An Post 1.6pc.
The Government's rejection of the ombudsman's 'Lost at Sea' report in 2009 was only the second time in the 25-year history of the office that a recommendation of the state watchdog has been rejected. The report addressed the issue of compensation for families of fishermen lost at sea.
The Oireachtas committee on agriculture is now dealing with the report after the Government initially refused to allow the ombudsman to state her case. But Ms O'Reilly said her office had not been in any way damaged.
There has been no change in attitude in the way public bodies and departments deal with her office, she said.
Having made such a "strong case" about the manner in which the 'Lost at Sea' had won her office public support, the ombudsman said she believed other public bodies would "think twice about trying it on".