Varadkar ‘overstated’ mental health spending in last budget

Huge tensions between Varadkar and Kathleen Lynch right up until budget day last year

The file on mental health spending reveals huge tensions between Mr Varadkar and Ms Lynch over the issue, both before and after last year’s budget. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The file on mental health spending reveals huge tensions between Mr Varadkar and Ms Lynch over the issue, both before and after last year’s budget. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Leo Varadkar overstated the previous Government’s spending on mental health in a statement issued on budget day last year, according to one of his own officials.

Mr Varadkar and the Labour Minister of State at the Department of Health, Kathleen Lynch, claimed in the budget day statement the Government had increased funding by €125 million for mental health and suicide prevention.

This was questioned the following day by one of the Department’s mental health officials, who said it was “not correct” and was “(deliberately or otherwise) overstating the case”.

“While it is true that mental health has received an additional ringfenced €125 million, that does not mean that the mental health budget has increased by €125 million,” the official, Gerry Steadman, wrote in an internal memo, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The file on mental health spending reveals huge tensions between Mr Varadkar and Ms Lynch over the issue, both before and after last year’s budget.

Funding for mental health in 2014 was €791 million, some €45 million short of the claimed increase of €125 million, Mr Steadman pointed out in the memo sent on the day after the budget announcement.

“We should be careful that we don’t overstate the situation regarding funding, particularly now when direct questions are being asked by [advocacy group] Mental Health Reform”.

The €125 million claim “fails to take into account the fact that the original mental health budget (without the new funding) actually decreased in the same period. Only mentioning the new money implies that the overall budget went up and this is not true”.

The shortfall arose after the HSE was unable to spend all the extra money it was given for mental health in some years.

The two ministers were at odds right up to the afternoon of the budget last October, with Ms Lynch insisting the Government fulfil its commitment to provide an additional €35 million in funding, as promised in the Programme for Government.

The official press release from the Department on budget day made no reference to the €35 million but Ms Lynch told journalists at a press briefing it would be forthcoming.

The briefing was delayed by the dispute, with Ms Lynch delaying her travel up from Cork until the last possible moment.

Row intensified

The extra money was referred to in the service plan subsequently published by the HSE but this also referred to plans for “time-related savings” to be made from the ringfenced funds.

The row intensified earlier this year when Ms Lynch learned from officials that €12 million of the €35 million supposedly ringfenced for mental health would be diverted to other areas.

As reported by The Irish Times last April, Ms Lynch told Department secretary general Jim Breslin in a letter there were “no circumstances” in which she could agree to the diversion of funds.

By then, however, Labour was within weeks of leaving Government.

According to the file, Mr Varadkar’s press adviser Nick Miller and Ms Lynch’s adviser Patricia Ryan disagreed over the answers to be provided by the Department to an RTE media query on the issue.

“Neither would back down” and Mr Breslin told one of his officials to “sort it,” according to Mr Steadman.

Ms Lynch then wrote a second, hitherto undisclosed letter to Mr Breslin, in which she expressed her disappointment and frustration at events.

While senior Department officials had maintained she signed off on the time-related savings that would apply to mental health, she maintained she was never consulted about the diversion of funds.

“It would seem absurd that having secured the full funding, that I would simply agree to it being taken away from the vital service for which it was designated.”

“I feel the public assurances and statements that I have made in good faith, have not been honoured and I now seek a clear statement on how the diversion of the 2016 mental health allocations was decided, how this was agreed, with whom and by whom.”

Ms Lynch said the use of time-related savings was “fundamentally flawed and unsustainable” and needed to be urgently re-examined.

Simon Harris, who succeeded Mr Varadkar as Minister for Health in the current Government, has since reversed the decision to divert the funds.