Monday 24 June 2019

We know health crisis is 'unacceptable', Mr Harris - but when are you going to do something about it?

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Unacceptable. That is the word most commonly used by Health Minister Simon Harris to describe the service that he oversees.

Since becoming Health Minister in May, he has stood up in the Dáil on 26 occasions and derided some aspect of the health service as "unacceptable". That's an average of three times a month that he lambasts the service.

Usually, Mr Harris uses the phrase in the context of waiting lists and hospital trolleys. At this stage, it's something of a stock response, employed to deflect blame when Opposition TDs denounce his performance.

"It is unacceptable that patients wait on trolleys for long periods, especially elderly and vulnerable patients."

The minister trotted out that exact sentence 10 times in December alone. Sometimes, he goes even further and labels excessive waiting lists and the trolley crisis "utterly unacceptable" or "deplorable and unacceptable".

But, after nine months in office, at what point will the minister stop echoing criticisms coming from the Opposition benches and start taking responsibility for the torment and trauma endured by the tens of thousands of patients around the country who are languishing on waiting lists or on trolleys?

Will it be today, after 'Prime Time' last night revealed that waiting list figures, which already put us in last place in Europe when it comes to treatment times, are cynically massaged? According to the RTÉ programme, waiting lists for medical treatment are significantly higher than official figures suggest because the HSE has created shadow lists into which it shunts tens of thousands of patients.

In true Kafkaesque fashion, progress in the health service now occurs when patients are moved from one waiting list to another - not when they are actually treated.

In fact, the HSE is so fond of moving patients between lists, there are more people languishing on these alternate lists than those who appear on official figures.

While the published list suggests 81,015 people are currently waiting for inpatient and day-case procedures, there are a further 82,770 patients on "pre-admit" and "pre-planned" lists, meaning the true figure is 163,785.

These are not patients who require just minor follow-up procedures. People who urgently need cataract removal, hip replacement and corrective spinal surgery are all transferred to these unpublished lists.

Megan Halvey Ryan's family have been forced to watch the 13-year-old suffer excruciating pain as she waits for spinal surgery to treat her scoliosis. Every day that passes, her condition deteriorates, her spine twisting and turning, meaning that she regularly misses school.

Back in November, Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher raised the plight of the 208 children on waiting lists to treat this condition.

"The problem is that as I speak, and the minister listens, children's lungs and hearts are being slowly crushed while they wait. Some children can no longer retain their food because their stomach is being squeezed," he said.

In response, Junior Health Minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy said the situation was, you guessed it, "unacceptable".

What is really unacceptable is the fact that we have one senior minister for health and four junior ministers in the department, all of whom seem incapable of doing anything other than bleating "unacceptable" whenever their own record is questioned.

In true Irish fashion, we now have a Health Promotion Minister, Ms Corcoran Kennedy, but can't guarantee that children awaiting transplants can be transferred to UK hospitals in time for their surgeries. Unable to perform the surgeries here, the Irish health service is so dysfunctional that it can't even organise an air ambulance for these desperately ill children.

Who exactly is in charge of our health service? Is anyone in Government responsible for what is going on in hospitals all over the country? Who can patients who are living with agonising pain hold accountable for their suffering?

Where was the Older People Minister, Helen McEntee, when it was revealed an average of 34 patients over the age of 75 were left on hospital trolleys for more than 24 hours every day in the first seven months of last year? Where was the Drug Strategy Minister, Catherine Byrne, when it was revealed there are an average of two drug-related deaths in Ireland every day?

Where is the Disability Minister, Finian McGrath, as able-bodied children are crippled by their scoliosis while the State stands by and does nothing?

Has there ever been a Government with so many ministers and junior ministers in a department with so little to show for their efforts? Nearly a year after his appointment, Mr Harris has excelled at acknowledging problems, but shows scant ability to do anything about them.

Responsibility for drafting a 10-year strategy for the health service has been farmed out to a Dáil health committee, while the big idea to tackle waiting lists is the resurrection of the national treatment purchase fund - a Fianna Fáil policy.

Is that it? Does the minister have any ideas of his own that he is interested in implementing? Does he have any idea how he is going to pay for the increased €350m cost of the children's hospital, and the €700m that consultants say he owes them for breaching their contracts 10 years ago - as well as offering children, whose spines are contorting their bodies, surgery before they are crippled?

Mr Harris may be a good media performer, but he doesn't work in communications. His job is supposed to be sorting out the health service, a prospect that looks more remote now than when he first took office. Fine Gael has been the major coalition party in government since 2011. It now owns this crisis; it's time its ministers did something about it.

Irish Independent

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