‘Vicious and aggressive’ approach of HSE has destroyed lives

Not all cases notified to CervicalCheck subjected to screening history, Harris reveals

The HSE has “destroyed lives” in its “vicious and aggressive” pursuit of people who take it on, the Dáil has heard.

Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O'Reilly warned Minister for Health Simon Harris that he must ensure other women affected by the cervical cancer screening controversy are not "forced to fight the State through the courts" as Vicky Phelan was forced to do.

“The toxic culture of concealment and harassment pursued by the HSE and Government against women who have been wronged by the State is now in full public view,” she said.

Ms O’Reilly, who previously represented people as a trade union official, said she had seen how “vicious and aggressive the HSE has been when they pursue people. I have seen people’s lives destroyed by the HSE, some of whom were whistle-blowers and some on the wrong side of a reported incident and subsequently found innocent.

“I have seen what the HSE and the machinery of the State is like when it goes up against an individual. For that reason I absolutely commend Vicky Phelan.”

Screening history

Ms O’Reilly was speaking during a debate on the cervical cancer screening programme in which Mr Harris said he had been informed on Tuesday night of a “potentially considerable number” of women with cancer whose cases were notified to CervicalCheck but whose screening history was not audited.

It was not new cases of cancer, he said. “These are women who have already been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and treated as such, but their cases have not been included in a clinical audit.’’

Mr Harris indicated in reply to Fianna Fáil spokesman on health, Stephen Donnelly, that it could be hundreds of cases.

He said the Serious Incident Management Team (SIMT) who had passed the information to him, would take steps to identify any additional cases of cervical cancer not audited.

“The screening history of these additional cases will be established, and if any of these women were screened through the CervicalCheck programme, their case will be reviewed in further detail with a cytology review where necessary,’’ he added.

He had also decided to appoint an international expert clinical panel to provide the women concerned with an individual clinical review.

Ms O’Reilly said the scale of the issue was now still not known.

She said that when Tony O’Brien, the director general of the HSE, was chief executive of the national cancer screening service he insisted it would be possible for doctors to talk to the person who analysed the smear test in the US through teleconferencing. “There is no evidence that this happened.”

She said she found it “very, very hard to believe” that the Minister found out about the Vicky Phelan case and issues around it only on April 16th, “but even harder to believe that Mr O’Brien found out from the media. I do not see that as plausible.”

She said general counsel of the HSE Eunice O’Rawe should make a statement about the decision to fight Ms Phelan’s case.

She added: “the gendered nature of this particular scandal is not lost on me, or my friends, or my daughter or my mother or any of the women who are affected by this”.

Lack of accountability

Labour health spokesman Alan Kelly said it was "deeply worrying" that the National Cancer Control Programme did not consider the issue to be a patient-safety incident. That was not credible or acceptable.

Mr Kelly said people were “sick to the back teeth of the lack of accountability.”

“Doesn’t it say an awful lot, Minister, that you actually knew about this before the director general of the HSE?”

Earlier Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald told the Dáil the position of director-general of the HSE Tony O’Brien was untenable and that he needs to go.

“And if he won’t go, you should sack him,” she told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during Leaders’ Questions.

“Do you have confidence in him? Because I must say I don’t,” she said, referring to the cervical cancer screening controversy which dominated Leaders’ Questions.

But the Taoiseach told her, “the basis on which you call for the dismissal of Tony O’Brien is based on an assertion that a decision to outsource these tests to the US has somehow cost lives”.

He said: “This is not yet supported by the facts and I think everyone, even Tony O’Brien, deserves a fair hearing before they are condemned. And we need to assess whether it was a wrong decision and it may not turn out to be.”

Ms McDonald said women “were kept in the dark because of a toxic culture of concealment and refusal to take responsibility in the HSE, a culture in which women are literally allowed to die before responsibility is taken”.

Michael O'Regan

Michael O'Regan

Michael O’Regan is a former parliamentary correspondent of The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times