Government reverses health cuts


The Government last night ordered the reversal of more than €10 million in cuts affecting the disabled.

The U-turn follows a storm of criticism since the Health Service Executive announced the cuts last week, with the decision taken after a lengthy Cabinet meeting yesterday largely devoted to the financial problems in the health service.

The meeting agreed that Minister for Health Dr James Reilly’s officials will direct the HSE not to proceed with planned cuts to personal assistant hours, which were projected to save €10.8 million this year.

Instead, the savings will be made through savings in travel and subsistence costs in the disability sector, Dr Reilly said last night.

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn told RTÉ Radio that the decision was taken by Dr Reilly and was not ordered by the Cabinet.

Controversial cuts in spending on home help services will still go ahead, and the HSE plans to make total savings of €130 million in the rest of the year to stem. In a statement, Dr Reilly said the HSE would assess each application for home help according to individual needs. It is not clear where the resources for such assessments will come from.

Dr Reilly said savings would have to be achieved from the total disability budget of €1.4 billion a year. However, he had instructed the HSE to make “adjustments” across the sector by cutting administration, training and travel costs, and through better management of the money handled by agencies involved.

He said he had requested the HSE to work with agencies to minimise the impact on disability services: “The Minister will receive regular reports from the HSE on the measures and will keep regularly reviewing the application of these measures to ensure that they are being applied as fairly and sympathetically as possible.”

No detail was provided on the measures that need to be taken by Dr Reilly’s department to bridge the balance of the €260 million shortfall in the health service.

Age Action today welcomed the partial reversal of the cuts. However, it asked how the Government found €10 million this week to reverse the reduction of personal assistant hours when it could not last week. A spokesman also asked why the Government cannot find the €12.5 million needed to reverse the cuts to older people’s services.

The full impact of the headline cuts in other areas announced last week will become apparent only when the HSE briefs staff on cutbacks to services in each of its four regions later this week. A spokeswoman said the exact configuration of local cuts, expected to include bed closures in the hospitals most in deficit, was still being worked through.

Last week’s announcement provoked a furious reaction among groups working with the disabled and older people, and caused tensions between the Government parties. Labour TDs in particular were critical of the areas targeted for cost reductions, and focused their attack on Dr Reilly for the manner in which the information was relayed to other Ministers and Government deputies.

However, FG sources rejected claims that Dr Reilly failed to inform his two Labour Ministers of State, Kathleen Lynch and Róisín Shortall, about the HSE’s plans to cut services.

In advance of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, however, senior Ministers moved to dampen down differences between the parties. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore contacted senior party figures on Monday night to assure them their concerns would be addressed but restated the Government’s determination to meet the targets set by the troika, which has been critical of overruns in the health services.

A group of 10 people with disabilities and their personal assistants protested outside Government Buildings yesterday as the Cabinet met. They said the decision to reduce or withdraw personal assistant and home help services would prevent disabled and older people from living independently in their homes.

The group spent last night outside Leinster House and remained there until mid-day today when they were handed  a written guarantee from the Government that the personal assistants' hours would not be cut. They are studying the letter at present.

One of the protesters, John Roche, expressed amazement at the decision to cut travel and subsistence costs.

"Why wasn’t that done four years ago? Why are they only looking at it now?".

Meanwhile, a HSE spokeswoman defended the decision to remove gluten-free products from the medical card scheme. No mention of these products was made when HSE managers briefed journalists last week, but the spokeswoman said many European countries did not reimburse for gluten-free foods, which were cheaper to buy in a supermarket than a pharmacy. The measure will save €3.6 million.

United Left Alliance TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the protests over the last two days were indicative of "a growing mood of anger against unfair and unjust cuts".

"The Government should now back down on all plans to cut home care services for the disabled and elderly," he said.

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