Reilly says 'crunch time' is coming for health services


THE MINISTER for Health has warned Fine Gael members a “crunch time” is approaching in the health service over the next few months as a result of impending cutbacks.

James Reilly has vowed that patients will come first and reductions in service last as efforts are made to tackle the financial overrun in the HSE, which is projected to hit €500 million by the year’s end.

In a letter emailed to party members yesterday, he admitted that the service was clearly positioned “between a rock and a hard place”: “No choice but to cut costs while, on the other side, facing increased demand.”

However he urged the party to ignore Opposition voices predicting calamity and catastrophe in the health services.

“The same voices were at work earlier in the year predicting the same doom and gloom in the context of the high level of staff leaving the health services through early retirement. But remember, they weren’t right then and they won’t be right now either.”

Dr Reilly is expected to come under intense pressure from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin in the autumn over the HSE cost overruns. He can expect continuing scrutiny of his business affairs, after he was named in Stubbs Gazette over an unpaid debt.

There are also tensions between the Minister and Labour colleagues, and with some Fine Gael TDs over abortion legislation.

In the letter, effectively a rallying cry for support from his party colleagues, he said savings of €700 million would have to be made this year at a time of increased activity. The search for savings would tackle inefficiencies and waste ahead of reductions in service, starting with excessive sick leave, the use of agency staff and overtime levels. Together, these cost about €750 million last year.

“This must and will be tackled. The message has gone out, time and again, that managers must manage money and find ways to reduce costs long before they look at the option of service reduction.”

There is considerable scepticism in the HSE that immediate savings can be made in absenteeism, 88 per cent of which is certified. There are also doubts about whether cuts in agency staff can be made without cuts in services.

Health, in common with other high-spending departments, would come under tight political and media scrutiny, Dr Reilly predicted. While there was a financial overrun, there had also been a significant increase in activity levels, he pointed out. This included a 6 per cent increase in hospital admissions, 7 per cent increase in inpatient discharges and the issuing of an additional 125,000 medical cards, largely because of higher unemployment.

He also pointed to a 10,000 drop in the number of patients on trolleys in emergency departments in the first half of this year compared to 2011.