Minister allowed O’Brien to join US firm while running HSE

O’Brien received ‘written consent’ to take up role months before finishing at HSE

Minister for Health Simon Harris gave written consent to HSE director general Tony O'Brien to take up a lucrative role at a US contraceptive manufacturer months before he leaves his role running the country's health service, the HSE has said.

Mr O'Brien became a board member of the San Diego company Evofem Biosciences on January 17th, almost two months before he publicly announced he would be leaving the HSE in August.

His boardroom roles at the publicly quoted company entitles him to an “annual cash retainer” of $50,000, additional cash fees of $15,000 and initial share-buying options worth $180,000 vesting over a three-year period with further annual options of $90,000, according to the firm’s public statements.

Mr O’Brien is paid an annual salary of €192,000 as HSE director-general, a job he said in March he will leave at the end of the summer.


A spokeswoman for the HSE said Mr O’Brien’s contract terms “allow him scope” to take up the boardroom position at the Californian company “once there is no conflict of interest with his role and once he seeks and receives consent from the Minister for Health”.

Written consent

She added: “He sought and received prior written consent from the Minister for Health.”

Evofem, a research and development company which makes a female contraceptive gel called Amphora, has “no commercial and/or financial relationship with the HSE,” the spokeswoman said.

He was invited to become a director of the company, she said.

Evofem's chairman is Irish businessman Thomas Lynch, who chairs the board of Ireland East Hospital, the country's largest hospital group, and the Mater Hospital.

Mr O’Brien sits on the board of the Californian company at a time when record numbers of Irish patients are on trolleys and waiting lists, and the HSE has a deficit of close to €100 million for the first three months of this year.

The HSE has previously argued the need for senior management in publicly funded health services to devote themselves exclusively to their official duties.

In the internal audit report into top-up payments to staff at St John of God organisation, published last year, the HSE said that it is entitled to expect employees of a State-funded health organisation "devote the whole of their working time" to duties connected to it.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

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