Simon Harris criticises HSE chief over ‘poor budgeting’

Minister says health authority’s plan for the year must be based on designated funding

Tony O’Brien, director general of the HSE, with Minister for Health Simon Harris at the announcement of the HSE National Service Plan 2018 in December. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Tony O’Brien, director general of the HSE, with Minister for Health Simon Harris at the announcement of the HSE National Service Plan 2018 in December. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

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Minister for Health Simon Harris has strongly criticised the head of the Health Service Executive over its “poor budgetary performance” and warned him Government policy must be followed.

It emerged last month the executive had warned the Government it could face potential financial difficulties of almost €900 million this year.

In a confidential letter sent last Friday to HSE director general Tony O’Brien, the Minister said the executive’s service plan for the year must be based on the level of funding made available “and not qualified by what the HSE had sought”.

Despite his strong language, a spokeswoman for Mr Harris said last night the Minister had confidence in Mr O’Brien. It is understood Mr O’Brien’s contract expires in the summer.

Mr Harris said the funding issue had been emphasised strongly to the HSE a year ago and he was “extremely disappointed” that in a recent budget submission to the Department of Health Mr O’Brien “did not take this clarification into account”.

He said last year was to have seen a particular focus on converting the use of more expensive personnel provided through agencies to staff posts in the health service. “However, in practice this was poorly planned and executed, resulting in an increase in overtime costs despite a rise in staff numbers and poor conversion of agency staff.”

Value for money

The Irish Times reported last month that Mr O’Brien had written to the Minister warning the HSE could face potential financial difficulties of up to €881 million this year. He also raised doubts that value-for-money savings of €346 million – which were a key element of the health budget in 2018 – would be realised in full.

In his letter, Mr Harris said more than €600 million in additional funding had been provided to the health sector this year, “and in this context, the potential funding challenge identified in your letter could be misinterpreted to mean that there is a funding shortfall of this magnitude”.

He added: “The department is clear that this is not the case, and it is simply not appropriate that the HSE would seem to contend that where the Government does not fund to the level requested, this inevitably translates into a funding challenge.”

The HSE said it was considering the Minister’s letter and would not comment on its contents at this time.

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