PAC ‘corroding public life in Ireland’, says former HSE chief

Tony O’Brien accuses Public Accounts Committee of creating a ‘culture of bullying’

Tony O’Brien: ‘I’m worried that without intervention we could be looking at the last generation of family doctors.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Tony O’Brien: ‘I’m worried that without intervention we could be looking at the last generation of family doctors.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

Former HSE director general Tony O’Brien has accused the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of “corroding public life in Ireland” and chasing “every passing controversy”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Marian Finucane Show on Saturday morning, the former HSE head, who stepped down from his position in May 2018, accused the PAC of creating a “culture of bullying” and that they “simply pay no respect to individuals”.

“They’re creating a culture in which the easiest way to survive as a public servant is never to do anything. They’re rewarding people for taking measured and controlled risks. Whatever you do as far as the PAC is concerned it’s wrong . . . they’re creating a system where people do not want to come in to the public service anymore.

“I believe the culture they have developed is doing real harm to public service in Ireland. I’m concerned if this carries on it will do real damage.”

Asked to comment on calls for Minister for Health Simon Harris to step down from office over the cost overruns at the national children’s hospital, Mr O’Brien advised that the Government wait for the findings of the Price WaterhouseCoopers (PwC) review into the controversy rather than adding to the current “showboating” around it.

“In a few weeks time there will be an objective report. I would argue it’s better to have that report than unseemly rush for headlines and airtime. . .It isn’t what the country needs.”

Mr O’Brien said he did not believe “animosity” existed between the Department of Health and the HSE but that there was “confusion around accountability” and “duplication of activities”. Noting that he was appointed as HSE director at a time when the health service was set to be abolished within two years, he said there was always a risk that “things would fall between the cracks” as long as the body continued.

Children’s hospital and nurses’ strike

He argued that he never knew of the overrun in costs of the national children’s hospital as he had stepped down from his position in May 2018, a month before the HSE was told that the project was facing cost challenges. “My working presumption is that this was brought to the oversight board in June because that’s when it became a live issue,” he said. “If it had been a big issue in April I’m confident they would have brought it to the board in April.”

Commenting on the ongoing dispute around nurses’ pay and conditions, Mr O’Brien said he held “pride” in the “tremendous work” of nurses but that the health service was the “wrong shape” and that the nurses were continuing to strike because no “meaningful engagement” had been offered by the HSE.

He said there had been very little momentum in the implementation of the SláinteCare plan and warned of “a significant problem” in the future around the State’s general practitioner (GP) services. “Our system is upside down, for years we’ve prioritised hospitals over primary care. I’m concerned that the most important medical relationship, which is our GP, is not necessarily going to be a relationship that people have in the future. I’m worried that without intervention we could be looking at the last generation of family doctors. And if we lose family doctors we’re going to lose the game.”