Tony O’Brien to meet RTÉ boss over HSE allegations

Health body accused of trying to suppress programme on Portlaoise hospital deaths

HSE director general Tony O'Brien is to meet RTÉ director general Noel Curran over allegations the HSE tried to suppress last year's Prime Time programme on baby deaths at Portlaoise hospital.

Mr O’Brien said he would write to his opposite number in RTÉ to discuss the allegations, of which he was unaware.

He was responding to Sinn Féin health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who claimed the HSE had employed “every effort” to dissuade RTÉ from proceeding with the programme.

"Everything imaginable was done to secure the suppression of the programme," he told the Oireachtas health committee.


Mr O’Brien said he knew nothing of any legal threats in relation to the programme and said HSE staff participated in it.

Earlier, he had again defended his actions and those of the health service in the face of criticism from parents whose babies died in Portlaoise.

Mr O’Brien repeated earlier apologies to the families who received substandard care at the hospital and insisted policy decisions on the status of Portlaoise could only be decided by the Government.

Robust approach

Speaking to the health committee, he said the HSE would take a more robust approach to its deliberations with the Government on resources issues with safety implications.

The HSE boss had earlier been the subject of criticism from TDs as well as parents who lost babies in the hospital.

Renua TD Lucinda Creighton said it was evident there were massive failings at all levels of the HSE.

She queried Mr O’Brien’s personal responsibility, given his contacts with one of the families who lost a baby in Portlaoise before the scandal broke.

“How can you say you are not responsible, that you weren’t there, that you had nothing to do with it when we know other deaths occurred in 2013? How can you not feel in any way accountable for these occurrences? I can’t comprehend that, given you were directly written to and attended meetings on this.”

She said Mr O'Brien wrote to Mark and Roisin Molloy, whose baby died in 2012, in October 2012, referring their concerns to HSE national director for patient safety Philip Crowley.

A month later, the Molloys wrote to Mr O’Brien drawing attention to the “blatant ignoring” of their concerns and pointing out that the hospital in Portlaoise had never been audited.

“They implored you to act to ensure no other family would suffer,” Ms Creighton said.

In December 2012 a meeting took place between Mr O’Brien and Mr Crowley at which the death of the Molloys’ son Mark was discussed, she said. There were no minutes of this meeting.

Mr O'Brien told the committee it was completely untrue no managers from HSE national level had intervened in Portlaoise following the Prime Time programme last year or that patient safety issues were not dealt with at the highest level.

He said the recommendations of previous reports on small hospitals could not be implemented in Portlaoise because they would have conflicted with a Government policy directive to maintain it as a regional, model 3 hospital.

It was clear the regulator intended to hold the HSE accountable, irrespective of the resources available or its power to make policy decisions.


“If we are going to be held accountable for political decisions – and maybe we should be – then maybe we have to embrace that. The HSE should have been much tougher about these things in the past and the only answer is to be tougher in the future.”

Any loss of life was tragic, and any indefensible behaviour on the part of staff only served to compound a tragedy. No one in the HSE was defending this.

He outlined the measures taken by the HSE since the Hiqa report appeared. A disciplinary investigation was under way and the Florence Nightingale Trust in the UK had been invited to look at issues of compassion and care provided. In addition, British consultants had been appointed to look at governance of smaller maternity units in the State.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times