Harney says major health cutbacks likely next year


MINISTER FOR Health Mary Harney has signalled that there will be significant cutbacks in areas of health spending next year if existing levels of service for patients are to be maintained.

Speaking on RTÉ's The Week in Politics last night, the Minister said that to maintain services there were going to have to be serious cutbacks in the use of agency staff and overtime at every level, including for non-consultant doctors and nurses.

Ms Harney also indicated that there would be a need for weekend ward closures and for more people to be treated on a day basis.

She said that the Health Service Executive had already tabled proposals to the unions and she hoped that everyone would play their part "in making sure that we do business differently in order to deliver services to people".

Ms Harney recently approved the HSE's service plan for next year. This is the blueprint on how it will spend its €14 billion budget. The HSE told trade unions last month that its draft service plan given to the Minister would see around 10 per cent of the country's acute hospital beds closed next year.

The HSE said that there were nearly 500 beds closed at present and that a further 600 would be taken out of the system.

The HSE also said that it planned to increase residential capacity for older people who did not need acute hospital care with 483 new non-acute beds and 150 replacement non-acute beds being brought on stream.

Meanwhile, around 9,000 health sector staff are to ballot on industrial action from tomorrow in the first protest against the proposed HSE cutbacks.

The personnel concerned include porters, catering staff and security personnel who are members of Siptu's Dublin health services branch.

The Irish Times revealed last month that among the proposals put forward by health service management to allow it to live within budget next year were a reduction in overtime across all grades by 50 per cent.

The HSE also sought to save €50 million by ending special grants, payments and allowances made to non-consultant hospital doctors and was looking for greater scope to redeploy personnel within the organisation.

HSE national director of human resources Seán McGrath told staff that the organisation had to end work practices that had no place in today's economic climate, and stop paying for things that it could not afford.

Siptu branch organiser Paul Bell said the attitude of the HSE was that existing agreements were fair game for attack and that it could unilaterally dismantle hard-won agreements that had been delivered through focus on flexibility and service.

"The message from our members is simple to the HSE: if you want to discuss efficiencies in order to reduce costs and increase patient access and service, we have no problem. But if the HSE think that telling our members that overtime will be worked at flat time and that all temporary personnel will be dismissed, then I fear that we are into a different sphere," he said.

Mr Bell said that his members had no difficulty in making sacrifices given the current economic climate in order to protect services. He said they had already accepted a pay freeze as part of the new national pay agreement

The HSE is currently engaged in talks with unions as part of a bid to introduce work practice changes from January.

HSE management told staff that it needed to eliminate between €400-€500 million in costs next year and that significant work practice changes were required.