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Priscilla Lynch: 2014 was another annus horribilis for our health service...can it change?

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Health Minister Leo Varadkar.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar.

It's fair to say that 2014 was another very challenging year for our health services.

It began with the most savage HSE budget cuts to date and a savings target of €666 million, which turned out to be totally unachievable.

In fact the HSE budget overrun this year has run past €500 million, resulting in the biggest supplementary budget bailout in its ten year history - a whopping €680 million.

Despite being announced with much fanfare over a year ago, free GP care for under-6s never materialised during 2014. Talks with GPs only finally commenced in recent months and are still ongoing.

In fact 2014 was a major headache for the Government in relation to medical cards.

cards

In a desperate attempt to save money, the HSE clamped down heavily on discretionary medical cards but didn't bargain for the resulting huge negative publicity - with heartbreaking stories of cards being removed from very elderly, feeble patients and the severely disabled.

The Government eventually backed down and restored the cards. It has stated free GP care for all is still high on its agenda. However given the lack of progress to date on introducing universal healthcare I wouldn't hold my breath.

A major change during the year was the removal of Dr James Reilly from the health portfolio and the insertion of Leo Varadkar in his place. The new Health Minister has gotten off to a positive start and his forthright approach and honest comments are refreshing.

Hopefully he will make more inroads than his predecessors into finding long-term solutions for the serious problems in our health service.

One of the most important issues he needs to solve is emergency department overcrowding, which hit record levels this month with 500 patients on trolleys across the country.

Beaumont Hospital even had to put its ED off-line and cancel non urgent operations as it could not cope.

A large part of the issue is delayed discharges, with around 800 patients medically fit to be discharged but with nowhere to go. Extra funding has been put aside to tackle this issue in 2015 but will this be just another sticking plaster as opposed to a long term solution?

2014 was also a difficult year for our maternity services, with revelations of substandard care and questions over the deaths of a number of babies in some maternity units.

The provisions of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act finally commenced this year but It is clear there are already issues with its operation.

The case of the young female non-national who could not travel abroad for an abortion and was eventually granted a termination of pregnancy through an early delivery of her baby reignited the debate on the provisions of the legislation and access to abortion.

The very recent case of a brain dead pregnant woman being kept on life support against her family's wishes also highlights that maternity services and legislation will remain in the news.

waiting

Elsewhere, after good progress on reducing waiting lists they have steadily crept up in recent months to unacceptable levels. To make matters worse the HSE continues to struggle to attract consultants and junior doctors while hundreds of frustrated GPs emigrated this year, which does not bode well for the rising pressure on services.

Finally, the recent shocking revelations on RTE Prime Time about the appalling treatment of patients in a residential care centre for people with disabilities in the West of Ireland have ensured 2014 has ended on a depressing note for our health services.

The programme confirmed our health services still have much work to do to ensure that vulnerable people in our society receive safe and dignified care.

2015 will undoubtedly be another tough year for patients and health staff but - hopefully - the stemming of health budget cuts and the determination of the new Minister and dedicated health staff signal improvements ahead.


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