Analysis: Coalition own goal on health jobs proves costly

Ireland struggles to compete in recruiting senior health personnel due to pay rates

The Irish Medical Organisation has estimated 250 or more consultants’ posts in hospitals remain vacant despite a new pay structure being agreed earlier this year aimed at making the positions more attractive.  Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The Irish Medical Organisation has estimated 250 or more consultants’ posts in hospitals remain vacant despite a new pay structure being agreed earlier this year aimed at making the positions more attractive. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

 

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said last week he wanted to see a return to the funding and staffing levels that existed in the health service prior to the economic crash.

Ironically, as money begins to come back into the health system, hospitals and health agencies are experiencing difficulties in securing staff to fill key medical and nursing positions.

The Irish Medical Organisation has estimated 250 or more consultants’ posts in hospitals remain vacant despite a new pay structure being agreed earlier this year aimed at making the positions more attractive.

The Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation has said 258 theatre staff nursing positions alone are currently vacant.

The dramatic turnaround from the situation in which hospital consultant positions were highly coveted among medical graduates to a scenario in which, in some circumstances, no applications are being received at all for posts has been attributed by unions and observers to a spectacular own goal by the Government over pay rates.

Following the election in 2011, the programme for government agreed by Fine Gael and Labour contained a specific commitment to reduce consultant pay levels.

Initially the then minister for health, James Reilly, chose not to travel in that direction but rather opted to seek to make savings from radical work-practice changes.

However, the Government announced a unilateral 30 per cent pay cut for newly appointed consultants. Medical organisations claimed the lower salary for new entrants would lead to a brain drain.

Revised pay structure In January 2014, on foot of receiving a consultancy report, the Health Service Executive acknowledged for the first time that there was an issue in relation to retaining senior doctors.

Talks on a revised pay and career structure eventually resulted in a deal earlier this year that effectively reversed much of the 30 per cent pay cut imposed in October 2012.

However, the Oireachtas health committee was told last year there were about 250 consultant positions in HSE hospitals that were not filled on a substantive basis, although some were filled by locums.

It remains to be seen whether the Coalition’s revision of consultant pay scales will succeed in making the posts more attractive to senior doctors.

Increasing pay rates for hospital consultants or other public-service high earners has never been a popular move and always generates controversy.

However, the events of recent years appear to show Ireland now has to compete in an international market to recruit and retain its senior health service personnel.

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