Reilly the scapegoat as medical card debacle tips colleagues over
Analysis: Minister for Health has been politically damaged by move he opposed
The row over medical cards is the latest in a litany of controversies dogging James Reilly since he took over as Minister for Health. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Minister for Health James Reilly seems an isolated political figure at the moment, taking the brunt of the criticism from colleagues in both Coalition parties for the medical card debacle that cost them so dearly in local and European elections.
Dr Reilly apologised to his Fine Gael colleagues at their parliamentary party on Wednesday evening for the way the medical card issue had been handled but he went on to blame Cabinet colleagues, with the notable exception of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, for forcing unrealistic savings on his department.
In fairness to Dr Reilly he has a case. The budget for this year initially contained a savings target of €113 million for “medical card probity”. This figure was strongly opposed by the Health Service Executive and Dr Reilly put up a furious battle against it.
Despite this the target was included in the budget figures, prompting more protests including a long and detailed letter from the HSE to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and to the Department of Health. This letter said that even with the withdrawal of 250,000 medical cards the maximum realisable savings would be about €44 million with inevitable social and health consequences.
Ultimately the savings target for medical cards was watered down to €23 million but the political consequences have been horrendous for both Government parties.
Dr Reilly is now in the unenviable position of having suffered severe political damage for a decision he opposed and is getting little credit for the fact that it has been reversed.
Dr Reilly’s problem is that the row over medical cards is only the latest in a litany of controversies that have dogged him since he took over as Minister for Health and more and more of his colleagues are feeling exasperated at his apparent inability to get out of trouble.
His inability to get on top of the day-to-day spending overruns in the health service and the failure to deliver on the savings pencilled in for the Haddington Road deal have left him in a vulnerable position.
Like many a politician before him Dr Reilly has become the scapegoat, not so much for what has gone wrong in relation to one issue but because of an accumulation of events that have ensnared him in one controversy after another.
All of this has encouraged speculation that he will be moved from Health in the reshuffle to be announced following the election of a new Labour Party leader on July 4th.
While Enda Kenny is the one who will ultimately decide Dr Reilly’s fate, the majority of his colleagues on the backbenches and in the Cabinet believe a new face in Health is essential to the Coalition’s prospects of recovery. The Taoiseach will find it difficult to resist that pressure.