Monday 23 September 2019

Eilish O'Regan: 'O'Brien should spare us the tone-deaf self pity and just get off the stage'


Critical: Former HSE boss Tony O’Brien referred to the PAC as ‘rude and inhumane’. Photo: Frank McGrath
Critical: Former HSE boss Tony O’Brien referred to the PAC as ‘rude and inhumane’. Photo: Frank McGrath
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

The late Kerry sports writer Con Houlihan famously made the well-judged comment about a man who he said was "forgotten but not gone". There's a time to get off the stage.

And former HSE chief Tony O'Brien might have done everyone a favour if he hadn't indulged in a Sunday newspaper interview in which he gave free rein to so much self-pity and a selective look at his years running the health service.

A certain dearth of self-analysis is to be expected and inevitable from someone who resigned in the middle of a scandal.

But what is surely lacking in sensitivity, and bordering on the unforgivable, is the tone of his interview.

Why did he choose to give it less than a month since the tragic death from cervical cancer of mother-of-five Emma Mhic Mhathúna?

Ms Mhic Mhathúna, whose funeral brought such a national outpouring of grief, died on October 7.

She was the victim of two negligent test readings in the lab commissioned by CervicalCheck, which is part of the HSE. One of the errors happened in 2013, a year after Mr O'Brien was appointed director general.

He spoke in the 'Sunday Business Post' interview yesterday of the "cauldron" atmosphere which engulfed the country as the CervicalCheck scandal broke.

And he referred to the "rude, aggressive and inhumane" approach of members of the Public Accounts Committee quizzing health officials.

It was only thanks to Limerick mother Vicky Phelan and her High Court case in April that the presence of audits showing women who developed cervical cancer got wrong results ever came to light.

They were sent out to doctors in 2016 and Mr O'Brien was informed of this at the time in a memo. What efforts did he make to ensure the labs were inspected?

Some errors are due to negligence, others are not. But we know the labs were not visited for the last four years.

He did not explain yesterday why he did not track what happened to the audits after he got the memo over two years ago.

The HSE had a policy of open disclosure of errors since 2013 - but what efforts did he make to ensure it was followed through?

Most women who were victim of errors did not find out until this summer and 20 are dead.

As for his criticism of Oireachtas committees, we only have to think back to the manner in which the legitimate questions asked by TDs and senators - the representatives of the public - were met with such resistance.

On one occasion in the Oireachtas Health Committee, Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly had to ask the same question five times before getting a response from a Department of Health official.

Mr O'Brien makes no mention of the delay faced by Dr Gabriel Scally, who was asked to carry out a scoping inquiry, in getting documents from the HSE in early summer in a usable format.

He had nearly six years in the job and he left behind record hospital waiting lists and the worst ever trolley figures.

Of course, he has an important contribution to make to the debate about the ills of the health service and undoubtedly he has legitimate grievances about changes in government policy, cuts in funding during the recession and the prioritising of political concerns when tough decisions are needed.

But he comes across as someone who has spent a summer seething and wallowing. He says he spent most of it outside Ireland.

It was a luxury denied to Emma Mhic Mhathúna and other women fighting cancer and undergoing treatment.

Irish Independent

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