Proposed patient safety fines for healthcare providers ‘a joke’, says Vicky Phelan

Victim of CervicalCheck scandal says State contributed €25,000 to her €2.5m settlement

Vicky Phelan, whose story brought the CervicalCheck scandal to light, has said the fines facing healthcare providers for poor performance under proposed patient safety legislation are "a joke".

Ms Phelan was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014 after a US company, Clinical Pathology Laboratories (CPL) misread her smear test. She was not told her test had been misread until last year.

She settled her case in April for €2.5 million and on Wednesday said that the State made a €25,000 contribution to the settlement.

Since her case came to light it has emerged that 18 women have died from cancer after their CervicalCheck screening tests were misread. The scandal led to Minister for Health Simon Harris bringing forward a patient safety Bill which provides for the mandatory open disclosure of serious patient safety incidents and imposes fines on healthcare providers who fail to abide.

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, Ms Phelan said the Bill was welcome but does not go far enough.


The Bill says fines for breaches of the law would be imposed on healthcare providers rather than individual practitioners.

“And the fines are a joke; €5,000 or three months in prison or €7,000 and six months in prison” she said. “Hospitals pay fines every day...€5,000 is nothing to these people. They’re not sanctions.”

The proposed Bill also states major patient safety incidents are to be reported to the State Claims Agency (SCA).

“I question the role of the State Claims Agency as the agency for reporting patient safety incidents here. Because let’s not forget, the State Claims Agency represents the interests of our State, not our patients.

“They are the very ones who are fighting with terminally ill women who are taking cases at the moment.”

Ms Phelan said her solicitor had told her of another client who more ill than she is who went through a four hour mediation session with the SCA this week.

“And at the end they still didn’t offer anything to her.”

Ms Phelan said she has learned from the Scally Inquiry, which is currently investigating issues with CervicalCheck issue, that although her case against the HSE was dropped, the State agreed to contribute €25,000 towards the CPL settlement.

She said this suggested that the State accepted some responsibilty even if its contribution was small. “This is important to me because my quest for answers is about much more than money. It is about accountability.”

Ms Phelan also questioned why there is no professional body which holds health service managers to account as the Medical Council does with doctors.

‘Not accountability’

She said former HSE director general Tony O’Brien, who stepped down in the wake of the scandal, was due to retire anyway and that the former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Prof Gráinne Flannelly, has returned to her private gynaecology practice.

“That’s not accountability in my book,” Ms Phelan said. “I don’t want revenge. I don’t want to get people fired. That’s not what I’m about. I want accountability.”

The summer school also heard from Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene was one of the 18 women who died after their cancer screening was misread.

“If people who read her smears did their job correctly on either of her smears she would still be alive today,” he said.

Asked if Mr O’Brien should have stepped down as HSE director, Mr Teap said “he displayed a total lack of leadership for someone who is supposed to be head of our healthcare system”.

Mr Teap said he came to this view when Mr O'Brien appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and said he does not accept personal responsibilty for the CervicalCheck mistakes.

“Someone who worked in the private sector where I work would last about five or 10 seconds with that attitude.”

Panel member Dr Eddie Molloy said he does not think Mr O'Brien should have stepped down.

"There are other people who are accountable for situation," he said. "I can't comment on his competence, I don't know why [former health minister] James Reilly appointed him. He ended up being saddled with things we knew he couldn't achieve."

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times