TDs to seek advice on fast-tracking CervicalCheck claims tribunal

New figures reveal almost 65,000 women still waiting to receive smear test results

Minister for Health Simon Harris has asked the committee members to waive the usual pre-legislative scrutiny in order to speed up the process of setting up the tribunal.  Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris has asked the committee members to waive the usual pre-legislative scrutiny in order to speed up the process of setting up the tribunal. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

 

An Oireachtas committee is to seek legal advice about fast-tracking legislation to bring in a new tribunal to deal with claims arising from the CervicalCheck controversy.

Members of the Oireachtas Committee on Health met in private last week to discuss plans to expedite the legislation but concerns were expressed that the members had not seen the details on the legislation and what it may contain, sources say.

Minister for Health Simon Harris has asked the committee members to waive the usual pre-legislative scrutiny in order to speed up the process of setting up the tribunal.

One TD on the committee said concerns were raised last week about the compellability of witnesses and documents and about whether appearing before the tribunal would be voluntary or not.

Members of the health committee are seeking advice from the Oireachtas business committee arising from their concerns before they make a decision about fast-tracking the Bill.

It comes as new figures reveal that almost 65,000 women are still waiting to receive the results of their smear tests as the Health Service Executive (HSE) continues with attempts to clear the backlog.

In some cases, women are still being asked to wait longer than 33 weeks to receive the results of their smear tests.

‘Unprecedented increase’

A spokeswoman for the HSE said it was “absolutely focused” on getting this number down.

“In 2018, almost 350,000 CervicalCheck screening tests [smear tests] were carried out; this is compared to an annual average of 250,000 tests. This unprecedented increase, due to women’s understandable concerns about cervical screening, had led to pressure on our laboratory services and very regrettable waiting times experienced by women for smear test results.

“Currently, results are taking up to 33 weeks from the time a smear test is taken. In some cases, this is taking longer. The HSE is absolutely focused on processing outstanding tests and reducing these waiting times as quickly as possible, which we recognise are extremely difficult for women.”

The HSE said it had been working particularly closely with MedLab, the laboratory with the largest number of smear tests waiting to be processed.

“Since 1st of May 2019, the lab has ceased receiving new samples and is focused on processing its remaining tests as a matter of priority. We have agreed with the lab that they employ human papillomavirus [HPV] initial testing, followed by cytology, to process these tests. This ensures HPV positive tests are prioritised and resulted, which are from women who are considered to have the highest clinical needs.

“We are making steady progress in this regard; with the overall number of outstanding smear tests reducing. As of 26th May 2019, 63,795 CervicalCheck smear tests were waiting to be processed.”

The average reporting times for the other two labs being used have now reduced to eight weeks or less. The introduction of a new, more accurate test for cervical cancer is being delayed by the backlog of smear tests.

Minister for Health Simon Harris recently pledged to introduce HPV testing “as soon as possible”.

“The introduction of primary HPV screening is in line with developments in cervical screening internationally. Ireland will be among the first countries in the world to make this transition,” he said in recent parliamentary correspondence.

“The HSE has been engaging with other countries who have already made the switch – the Netherlands, and Australia – or who are preparing to do so, to identify learnings for the project across a range of workstreams including reconfiguration of laboratories, procurement, ICT and colposcopy services,” he said. “I have asked the HSE to introduce HPV testing as the primary screening method for the prevention of cervical cancer as soon as possible.”