HSE never used more than 45% of private hospital capacity during pandemic

Health service owed €35m from cancelled ventilator order, Public Accounts Committee hears

A three-month deal from March 2020 allowed access for public patients to 2,300 beds in private hospitals and cost €287 million. Photograph: iStock

A three-month deal from March 2020 allowed access for public patients to 2,300 beds in private hospitals and cost €287 million. Photograph: iStock

 

The Health Service Executive (HSE) never used more than 45 per cent of the capacity of private hospitals that was taken over by the State during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee has been told.

The three-month deal allowed access for public patients to 2,300 beds in 18 private hospitals and cost €287 million.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid also told the committee that the cost of dealing with the cyberattack on the health service last May could total about €100 million.

He also said that the HSE had written down €374 million (out of a total expenditure of about €900 million) in relation to the current value of personal protective equipment which had been purchased last year.

This included a write-off of expenditure on protective suits which are expected to be obsolete prior to being required for use.

The Irish Times reported in July that the HSE was to make provision of €64 million in its accounts for the year arising from the “anticipated obsolescence” of protective suits which it bought last year. It has written down the value of these suits on the basis that clinical demand indicated it was carrying up to 41 years’ supply.

The Public Accounts Committee was also told that at present the HSE was owed about €35 million arising from the pre-purchase of ventilators from China at the start of the pandemic, the order for which was subsequently cancelled.

The HSE anticipated that it would shortly receive reimbursement of a further €11 million from a Chinese supplier, leaving €23 million outstanding.

Risk-based approach

Mr Reid said the HSE had taken a risk-based approach to procurement in a market that was not normal at the time. He said at the time the early forecasts were suggesting up to 40,000 people could die and that Ireland “from an ICU perspective, did not benchmark strong at all by international comparisons”.

He said he wanted his procurement teams to take rapid actions and accepted that there were things that would be done differently now.

Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy also told the committee that an an alleged payroll fraud at a HSE hospital has been referred to the gardaí.

The Public Accounts Committee on Thursday held a hearing into spending and procurement by the HSE during the pandemic.

HSE chief financial officer Stephen Mulvany said the three-month deal in March, April and May last year, which allowed access for public patients to 2,300 beds in 18 private hospitals across the country, had cost €287 million.

He said 50,000 procedures for public patients had been carried out in private hospitals under the arrangement. He said the good news was that the full level of capacity in the private hospitals did not have to be used and the potential threat that the public hospital system would be overwhelmed did not materialise.

He said the HSE had never used any more than 45 per cent of the private capacity.

HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor said the hotel and other facilities at City West, which the HSE had originally taken over as a step-down unit during the early stages of the pandemic, was still being used to provide isolation accommodation and to assist with the testing and vaccination programmes.

“We would be lost without it,” she said.

Mr Reid confirmed that the use of private hospital facilities as well as increasing capacity in the public system would form part of the new plan to tackle waiting lists.

Mr Reid told Imelda Munster of Sinn Féin the bill for dealing with the cyberattack could be about €100 million.

Asked whether there had been a lax approach to security, he said the HSE previously did not have a 24/7 monitoring of its networks and this was a weakness that would have to be addressed.

“There will be definitely be areas of weakness that we have to address. There will definitely be findings [in a forthcoming consultancy report] that we are at risk of exposure in terms of our network and there will be definitely a whole range of actions and investment that we will have to take to protect it better.”

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