Unfilled positions leave blood service weak
ANALYSIS:Selective and partial appointments to the board raise concerns over competence gaps
Multiple scandals over the provision of infected products in the 1990s caused massive damage to the system by which hospital patients are provided with blood donated by the public.
Since then, it has taken a major reorganisation and much hard work to put the Irish Blood Transfusion Service back on an even keel. Understandably, though, memories of earlier controversies are never far away.
The concern expressed by those running the service over the failure to fill board positions has to be understood in this light. How well-equipped would the transfusion service be to deal with another blood crisis when large numbers of board slots remained vacant and it lacked key skills in finance and production?
The chief executive of the service, Andrew Kelly, reminded Minister for Health James Reilly’s officials last January that nine members of his existing board were due to finish at the end of May.
Loss of experience
“While I am fully aware that it is the Minister who appoints board members, I would like to draw attention to the fact that we could be losing a lot of experience at a time when the organisation is facing significant challenges.”
In February, Kelly wrote another letter pointing out that the service needed a continuity of some board members “to avoid a significant loss of corporate memory”.
All of the members of the finance committee and two members of the audit committee were due to leave, he said.
The following month, he warned that the financial accounts could not be signed off on because of the lack of board members after May.
The department advertised to fill the eight ordinary vacancies and the chair in April.
Some 28 applications were received and assistant secretary Fergal Lynch advised Reilly in April to consider retaining some of the existing members “in order to protect corporate knowledge and help continuity”.
The outgoing chairwoman, Katharine Bulbulia, a leading figure in the Progressive Democrats, sought to continue in the post and enjoyed the support of Kelly, but she was not reappointed.
She warned Reilly in a letter that the failure to fill vacancies was exposing the service to “unacceptable risk”.
In her place, the Minister appointed Prof Anthony Staines from the school of nursing in DCU as the new chairman in June. Staines is a long-standing Fine Gael supporter.
The Minister also appointed to the board a fellow GP from North Dublin, Conor McGrane, as well as Brian O’Mahony of the Irish Haemophilia Society. An international blood expert from Milan, Dr Paolo Rebulla, was reappointed for another two years.
Officials expected Reilly to make the remaining five appointments the following week but, apart from one further reappointment to replace one of the remaining board members who resigned, nothing has happened.
This is despite efforts by incoming chairman Staines, who warned Reilly in June there was “no one with substantial experience in finance, in production or in business processes” on the board.
Gaps in competency
Department officials also repeated earlier warnings about the gaps in competencies and the Minister told the Dáil in July he would make the appointments “shortly”.
One reason for the delay is apparent from the file, which includes a handwritten note from Reilly’s adviser, Maureen Windle, to an official: “Minister will take the advice of his Lab. colleagues on three of the appointments.”
Another, unsigned note indicates that the original nine vacancies are to be filled “6FG” and “3Lab”. Under this division of the roles, Reilly still has two further appointments to make while the other three are to be allocated by his Labour Ministers of State.
Reilly elected not to appoint any of the people who applied through the public appointments system, while Labour has yet to make any selection.