HSE cuts to homecare services provoke furious reaction
HEALTH SERVICE Executive cuts to home help and services for high-dependency patients have provoked a furious reaction from groups working with older people and the disabled and disagreement between the Government parties.
The strength of the reaction appeared to take Government by surprise and caused dismay among Labour politicians.
Labour Party chairman and Galway East TD Colm Keaveney said last night he was “very uncomfortable” with the cuts affecting older people and the disabled. While accepting the need to deal with the HSE’s €260 million deficit, cutbacks should be targeted on “trophy areas that appear to be protected” instead of vulnerable groups.
“In the context of political stability, this can’t happen again. If I were minister instead of James Reilly, I’d be tackling consultant salaries and drug costs instead of the areas of greatest dependency.”
Another senior Labour source warned that the Government risked a re-run of the 2008 revolt by older people over changes to medical card eligibility. He claimed the cutbacks wouldn’t have been necessary if Minister for Health James Reilly had achieved savings in drug costs and secured a deal to charge more for the use of public hospital beds by private patients.
Siptu said its members working as home helps “will not stand idly by and allow this attack on the sick and vulnerable to proceed”.
Of the eight cost-cutting proposals in the HSE plan outlined yesterday, at least three will affect older people or the disabled exclusively. Services for both groups are likely to be seriously affected by a 600,000-hour cut in home help hours, as well as a reduction of 200 home care packages and a €10 million reduction in hours for personal assistants for people who need high levels of support trying to live independently.
Dr Reilly has consistently championed the care of patients in the community in preference to long-term stays in hospital, but advocacy groups predicted the effect of the cuts would be to increase hospital admissions.
“If this culture of homecare cuts continues, children with life-limiting conditions will end up back in hospital unnecessarily, which nobody wants and which costs nine times more than homecare,” said Jonathan Irwin, chief executive of the Jack and Jill Foundation.
The HSE said “the impact of these reductions will be minimised by ensuring that services are provided for direct patient care”.
HSE performance director Laverne McGuinness said “home helps in some rural areas are now providing assistance to older people over the phone” rather than visiting in person.
Groups working with older people sharply criticised the cuts. The Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament said they could prove “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for many families coping with caring in the home.
Older and Bolder described them as “tantamount to turning off the life support machine on services which were already thinly spread”. Home help services have already been cut by 500,000 hours earlier this year.
But the HSE, which is currently running a €259 million deficit, insisted it had a legal obligation to remain within the budget targets set by the Government and the troika.
Agency staff is being cut by 50 per cent and overtime by 10 per cent, while the removal of products such as glucosamine, a dietary supplement, from the medical card will save €6 million.
Dr Reilly, who was accused by Fianna Fáil of going into hiding, said in a statement he had directed that all areas of expenditure in the health system be closely examined to ensure that suspension of services was a last resort. He acknowledged that reductions in service were inevitable but said these would be monitored constantly. The Minister said he would announce other savings to deal with the deficit next week. These are expected to include a €28 million cut in capital funding, a €125 million advance payment due from health insurers and €45 million from the Medical Defence Union.
The impact of cuts in each region won’t be known until next week but is likely to include bed and theatre closures, particularly at weekends.