Harney warns of up to €1bn in health spending cuts


Cuts in health service funding next year could be up to €1 billion, which is significantly higher than previously indicated, the Minister for Health Mary Harney said today.

Speaking following her address to an ESRI conference on health service funding in Dublin this morning she said there was "no easy way to take that kind of money out" of the health service.

While cuts in health funding last year also amounted to €1 billion, much of that was accounted for by cuts in core pay to staff. However, under the Croke Park agreement, this year's cuts will have to come from other areas such as procurement, cutting services or perhaps staff overtime.

Ms Harney said she didn't want to be specific about the actual amount to be cut from health in December's budget but said: "It will certainly be a minimum of €600 million and it could well be substantially higher".

Up to now cuts of €600 million only had been on the cards.

Asked if the cuts in health funding could go up to €1 billion she said: "I'm not certain it will be that high but it will be somewhere between €600 million and a €1 billion".

She said she had been engaging with the HSE's new CEO Cathal Magee in recent weeks on how the savings could be achieved.

"It's not going to be easy. There's no easy way to take that kind of money out. Even if you're talking about €600 million its an enormous amount of money and given that pay rates can't be cut as a result of the Croke Park agreement and 70 per cent of our budget is pay, you're talking about taking that amount of money out of the remaining 30 per cent and that's going to be really challenging," she said.

"So we have to look at everything, our procurement processes, our staff ratios, five day wards, more day activity, all the agenda items that have been pursued in recent years will be pursued even more aggressively over the next phase," she added.

She said redeployment of staff in the health service would be crucial during 2011 and beyond "if we are going to be able to maintain services to the public".

Siptu's acting national health organiser Paul Bell said the axe being wielded by Ms Harney was too blunt to ensure savings are not at the expense of services being delivered directly to the public.

"All the evidence from the past is that if these cuts go ahead they will hit services such as home helps, mental health and elective surgery for people waiting for things like hip and knee replacements. In fact cuts on this scale will affect the viability of many hospitals and the situation we have seen threatening to emerge in HSE West could be replicated across the state," he added.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has called for a crisis summit on the health services "to be convened immediately".

A statement issued by the organisation this afternoon said it is "firmly convinced that patient care will be severely compromised".

“The INMO first called for this crisis summit almost two months ago. In addition, we have submitted to the Minister an alternative vision for the health service 'There is a better way' which still sits on her desk", general secretary, Liam Doran said.

"Faced with the current economic realities stark and difficult choices will have to be made but, in the context of a public health service, all decisions must put the patient first and ensure that frontline staff, providing direct care, are given the required resources,” he added.

Speaking this afternoon, David Begg, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), reiterated his call to extend the time period to reduce the country's deficit.

Speaking on RTÉ News, Mr Begg said reducing the deficit to 3 per cent by 2014 cannot be achieved without causing permanent damage to the fabric of society.

"We simply can't manage to do this over a four-year period. Fiscal retrenchment on its own can't be achieved through just purely austerity. You need to have some growth in the system," he said.

"we have to get the fiscal situation in order but we need to do it over a period of time which doesn't prevent growth from taking hold and giving us a boost," he added.

Commenting on the Minister for Health's comments, Sinn Féin health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said: “Mary Harney is threatening cuts in our health services of up to €1 billion.

“Such cuts would devastate the public health system. I have no doubt that the loss of services across the system on such a scale, especially in our public hospitals, would be so severe that lives will be lost,” he said.