GPs to provide repeat smear tests free of charge

Multimillion euro agreement follows ‘horrific week’ for women in Ireland

The Government has agreed a multimillion euro deal with GPs to facilitate a free repeat smear test and a medical consultation after more than a week of public anxiety in the wake of controversy over cervical cancer screening.

The Minister for Health Simon Harris said on Friday the last few days had represented a "horrific week" for the health service and for women the length and breath of the country. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar echoed this, saying it had been "a dreadful week" for the health service and a "culture change" was needed to reform it.

He said “women are worried about CervicalCheck, were worried about their smear test history and worried about getting quite frankly simple answers to very important questions”.

The Government on Friday evening reached agreement with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) which will see GPs paid €50 for a consultation with women and €49 to carry out a repeat smear test.

The number of women who may avail of such services is unknown but the cost overall is likely to run into tens of millions of euro with estimates ranging from €20 million to €75 million.

The deal says that “given the current circumstance it is recognised that during this period of uncertainty and heightened concern women have been advised that they can seek appropriate support and advice from their GP, through consultation and arrangements for the provision of smear tests, where their concerns require such a response”.

‘Worrying time’

Dr Padraig McGarry of the IMO said: “This is a very painful, worrying and difficult time for many women throughout the country. While there is an ongoing capacity issue in general practice GPs will do their best to facilitate women in this process over the coming months”.

The Minister also indicated he wanted to reassure women who were concerned about smear tests being sent abroad for analysis by asking the HSE to publish urgently the differential rate between a lab in the US and a lab in Ireland.

Mr Varadkar also said he was “absolutely open” to a public inquiry into the cervical screening controversy. He said a scoping inquiry would be carried out prior to a statutory inquiry to get immediate answers. He said 180 of 208 women diagnosed with cervical cancer who should have received an earlier intervention have now been contacted.

Scoping inquiry

The controversy arose after Limerick mother of two Vicky Phelan (43) settled a High Court action against a US laboratory, subcontracted by the CervicalCheck screening programme to assess her smear tests, without admission of liability for €2.5 million last week.

Ms Phelan discovered that a 2011 smear test that had initially shown no abnormalities was, three years later, found to be inaccurate. She was not told of the false test until September 2017. She is now suffering from terminal cancer.

Mr Varadkar said he had been in touch with Ms Phelan on Friday morning and that she will be part of the scoping inquiry.

“I am happy that I am going to be involved,” Ms Phelan said. “At least there will be somebody on this committee that will be sitting there representing the people.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is seeking to put down a motion of no confidence in HSE director general Tony O’Brien in the Dáil next week. Fianna Fáil has also called for him to step down.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

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