Sunday 22 September 2019

Varadkar has failed and failed again. So why is he getting an easy ride?

Health Minister Leo Varadkar and Minister for Primary Care Kathleen Lynch launch the Diabetes Cycle of Care in Thomas Court Primary Care Centre, in Dublin 8. Photo: Damien Eagers
Health Minister Leo Varadkar and Minister for Primary Care Kathleen Lynch launch the Diabetes Cycle of Care in Thomas Court Primary Care Centre, in Dublin 8. Photo: Damien Eagers
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Dr James Reilly was routinely monstered by the media for his many failures as Minister for Health, so why is Leo Varadkar being given an easy ride?

Since being gifted the poisoned chalice at the Department of Health, infamously dubbed Angola by Brian Cowen, Mr Varadkar has broken commitments, missed targets, overseen a botched recruitment scheme and, last week, abandoned the central plank of the Government's entire health strategy.

Yet, despite this litany of failure, Mr Varadkar still commands the kind of effusive media coverage that most politicians can only dream about. No matter what calamity befalls the health service, it's invariably someone else's fault.

Last week was a case in point. Nearly five years into the lifetime of this government, and seven years after Fine Gael first championed the policy, Mr Varadkar revealed that an ERSI report had concluded that universal health insurance is not affordable and never will be.

The model examined by the ESRI found that competition among health insurers would not lead to any savings and would instead cause premiums for the average family to soar to €5,000 per annum.

Mr Varadkar didn't just belatedly discover this plan was unworkable last week. In July, a draft version of the ESRI report, which revealed the same unsustainable figures, was leaked to the media and widely covered.

Meanwhile, the most scathing analysis of the policy long predates the ESRI research. In February 2014, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform warned the plans could threaten the financial viability of the State and result in exorbitant fees.

What did the Government do when presented with this devastating assessment of its health strategy? Ignore it, of course, and plough on regardless, commissioning a report to tell them what they already knew and deferring the inevitable abandonment of the policy to the very last minute.

Given that Mr Varadkar has been in situ in the Department of Health for more than a year now, what did he have to say about this fiasco last week when he finally faced up to reality and publicly disowned the scheme? In a car crash interview on 'Morning Ireland', he said there was an unfortunate "obsession" with the "funding model" that would be used to finance the health service and that people should instead concentrate on his "vision".

You see, unlike economists and policy wonks in his own department who fret about how the Government is actually going to pay for things, Mr Varadkar thinks those bean counters are missing the big picture. His vision, his cure for all of the ills that beset the system, is to create "building blocks" and "structural reform", namely dismantling the HSE and hiring more front-line staff.

So, there you have it. The big idea from the Minister for Health, his ambitious vision for change, is that we should hire more doctors and nurses. This must be why we pay him the big bucks. If any other member of Government spouted such inane tripe, when dumping a core proposal that has driven departmental policy for five years, they would be torn apart by the media. Not Mr Varadkar, whose honeymoon period is apparently never-ending. Part of the reason for this is Mr Varadkar's uncanny ability to refer to himself in interviews as some kind of innocent bystander in the Department of Health who looks on aghast as it stumbles from one disaster to the next. He may not be able to tackle waiting lists, or the scandal of hundreds of patients languishing on trolleys, but he has excelled at managing the public's expectations to the point that nobody expects very much.

Despite Mr Varadkar's perennial popularity, it's worth pointing out that his tenure in Hawkins House hasn't been much more successful than that of his predecessor, even though he has had a lot more money to throw at problems.

While Dr Reilly made promises so extravagant that they bordered on the delusional, Mr Varadkar's pledges have been much less ambitious, but he has nevertheless failed to achieve them.

For instance, a major commitment from Dr Reilly was that no one would be forced to wait longer than nine months for an outpatient appointment, which he failed miserably to achieve.

When Mr Varadkar took over he promptly extended this target considerably, stating nobody would be waiting longer than 18 months for an appointment by June and 15 months by December.

Given that in August some 11,235 patients were waiting for longer than 18 months while a staggering 34,003 were waiting for more than 15 months, these targets now look as fantastical as Dr Reilly's.

Attempts to address the trolley crisis in hospitals have been just as bungled, and last month the Minister was forced to admit his threat that "heads would roll" if the situation was not improved was just bluster, when he conceded that he didn't have the authority to actually sack anyone.

Backtracking furiously from angry sentiments expressed in a leaked email, he said moving underperforming staff would send the wrong message and refused to set a target date for when the trolley crisis would be resolved.

Elsewhere, a scheme to entice nurses working abroad to come back to Ireland has been an unmitigated disaster, with just 77 nurses out of an anticipated 500 returning home. Strangely, the prospect of working for a pittance in our overcrowded hospitals hasn't proven particularly attractive to young nurses.

Nobody thinks Mr Varadkar's job is easy, but as the Minister it's time he learned the buck stops with him. People waiting for treatment have heard enough excuses, now they want to see some results.

Irish Independent

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