Sunday 21 July 2019

Editorial: 'Hospital cost fiasco shows unhealthy budget mindset'

Work underway at the site of the new Children’s Hospital. Photo: Mark Condren
Work underway at the site of the new Children’s Hospital. Photo: Mark Condren


Concealed in a musty recess of Government Buildings there must be a hobgoblin with a rank sense of humour relishing off-colour jokes at the public's expense.

Last week we heard we are in the process of delivering the most expensive hospital ever built in the world. Back in April 2016, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the total cost of the project would be a considerable €650m. The bill for the new national children's hospital has now hit a colossal €1.73bn.

An overrun of more than €1bn deserves an explanation, you will agree, and this is where the aforementioned hobgoblin is probably having a laugh: a review of the costs will itself cost €450,000. This is necessary to identify any "potential weaknesses", according to HSE assistant director general Dean Sullivan, who addressed the Oireachtas Health Committee on the subject.

It seems everyone was happy up until mid-2018. There was no cause for alarm. Monthly reports from the design team overseeing the development indicated all was well.

So what happened? Are we not entitled to know how so much taxpayers' money was swallowed up?

Yesterday, the Oireachtas committee accused Robert Watt, head of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, of treating it with disrespect over his refusal to give evidence over the cost of the hospital.

Chairman Dr Michael Harty said Mr Watt was treating it with disrespect, as his department had a responsibility to explain how the cost overruns would be funded.

Reacting to Mr Watt's non-attendance, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed rising hospital costs were "set to blow a hole in capital budgets for years to come, but nobody is willing to take responsibility for it".

She asked the Taoiseach what projects would be cut because of the "scandalous cost overrun". Mr Varadkar attempted to fob her off, saying no project would be stopped but some may have to be "deferred".

He also claimed it would require a "reprofiling" of about €100m worth of capital budget.

Words like "deferred" and "reprofiling" translate in human terms as more sick people not getting what they need when they need it, whatever way you dress it up.

There is no virtue in doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. If we had proper transparency and accountability procedures, and management oversight, we would get answers without expensive inquiries. But State budget blow-outs will be with us so long as there is a tolerance for a mindset which suggests "we didn't actually overspend our budget, the allocation just fell short of our expenditure", and the taxpayer is left picking up the tab.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss