Portlaoise sanctions over baby deaths to be kept secret

HSE boss says families may never know if hospital staff members were disciplined

The families of babies who died at Portlaoise hospital may never find out if those responsible for the care of their children were disciplined by the health service, the head of the Health Service Executive has warned.

In a letter seen by The Irish Times, HSE director general Tony O'Brien told the Department of Health the outcomes of disciplinary proceedings into the deaths would have to remain confidential and the process would not apply to hospital staff who since have retired.

The deaths of five babies in Portlaoise were reported two years ago in an RTÉ documentary, and scores of women have since come forward with stories of adverse events in the maternity unit, including further deaths.

Parents have been calling for those responsible, both clinical staff and managers, to be held accountable.

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An initial examination last year found at least 16 staff had a case to answer but one employee challenged the legal basis for the investigation, leading to doubts as to whether it could proceed.

The HSE has since reconstituted the much-delayed investigation to limit the possibility of a legal challenge by those with a case to answer.

It says it hopes the bulk of the investigation, which began in July 2015 and was supposed to take three months, will be completed by the end of the year.

Serious misconduct

Three former

NHS

managers from the UK were appointed last year to determine whether any HSE staff had a clinical or managerial case to answer in relation to the deaths.

These have been joined by Northern Ireland obstetrician Jim Dornan and barrister Paul Brady.

This review group will report to the HSE on whether any staff should face disciplinary proceedings or may have committed serious misconduct.

A senior figure such as a retired judge will determine sanctions.

The HSE argues this process is necessary to ensure the rights of those under investigation are upheld and due to the complexity of the cases.

It says a recent court judgment in a case taken by staff accused of mistreating residents at Áras Attracta nursing home has relevance to the Portlaoise case because the judge in that case was critical of disciplinary procedures.

In January, Mr O’Brien said the investigation prompted by the baby deaths was likely to cost €10 million in legal fees and take years to complete.

The HSE has spent €30,000 on the investigatory process but now believes the review can be completed for less than €10 million, but it depends on the number of staff who have a case to answer.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent