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Reform of cancer services the high point of minister's mixed report card

MARY Harney seemed to never be able to go for a walk, do her shopping or attend a function without somebody buttonholing her to say how good their experience of the health service was.

And she never missed an opportunity to recall the encounters to health journalists, who sometimes met her several times a week and eventually developed a sixth sense about another impending anecdote.

The minister was convinced she was making a difference to the health service from her appointment in September 2004 and could not wait to get back to Hawkins House in 2007 after the General Election.

Mary was seen as the 'can-do' politician with enough steel to take on the vested interests that had resisted change and left the health service something of a lumbering mess of waiting lists.

Her final report card is not quite as glowing as she paints it, but, behind the rhetoric, she can lay claim to some fine achievements that will have long-lasting benefits for the health of the country.

Without doubt her greatest legacy was the reorganisation of cancer services into eight specialist centres and her handpicking of former cancer tsar Tom Keane to take on the task.

It's still a work in progress and will continue to need ring-fenced funding. It's easy to forget now the level of local opposition to the closure of small cancer centres. But be sure it will be revived again as ammunition during the election campaign.

Harney can also take credit for inventing the GP visit card, a yellow-pack version of the medical card, which allowed people free doctor visits.

She eventually grasped the nettle of patient safety after several harrowing cases of misdiagnosis and a strong campaign by MRSA survivors who brought the threat of superbugs in from the margins.

She set up the Health Information and Quality Authority, which can inspect safety standards and make public its findings. Hospital hygiene audits got under way and infection control policies got priority.

A new contract for hospital consultants was agreed eventually but the jury is still out on its success.

Doctors got a huge pay rise and they were supposed to limit their private practice.

But many are still in flagrant breach of their private patient quota and the benefits for public patients have yet to be measured.

Harney's "big idea" was co-location. Private hospitals would be built on the grounds of public hospitals, freeing up 1,000 beds for public patients.

She had no qualms about the private sector taking on most of the financial risk if it benefited public patients. But the recession has left the plans gathering dust.

Her greatest regret must be failing to curb the extravagance of the Health Service Executive and delaying the redundancy schemes until the country faced a jobs crisis.

She was vilified as hard-hearted for saying no to so many demands for compensation and inquiries.

But whoever gets the job in March will have no choice but to do the same.

Irish Independent