Women at ‘risk’ over CervicalCheck smear backlog, PAC told

Backlog of over 80,000 smear tests and delay of 20 weeks to read smear tests

Labour health spokesman Alan Kelly said delays in reading   smears created a “serious risk”. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Labour health spokesman Alan Kelly said delays in reading smears created a “serious risk”. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

There is a “risk” to women who require routine smears because their tests are facing 20-week delays in being read due to a backlog created by the CervicalCheck controversy, a Dáil committee has heard.

Cases where women had been told to return for smear tests in six or 12 months time, as part of the routine screening programme, are being processed alongside smears from women who availed of a free repeat test offered by the Government at the height of the scandal.

The health service is currently processing a backlog of over 80,000 smears, more than half of which are from women who availed of free repeat smears.

Damien McCallion, national director of the screening service, said there was a current delay of 20 weeks to read smear tests, due to the backlog. Mr McCallion was speaking on Thursday at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Labour Party health spokesman Alan Kelly said if women were asked to return for a follow-up test earlier than normal “then there is a medical reason, or a risk potentially”. Mr Kelly said delays in reading these patients’ smears created a “serious risk” for the service.

Mr McCallion agreed there was a risk, and the inability to “differentiate” between repeat or in-cycle smears posed a “serious challenge”.

When the controversy broke, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar promised that affected women would not be forced through an adversarial court process to get compensation. The Government also committed to provide a free repeat smear for any woman who wanted one.

The blanket offer of a free repeat test was the “primary factor” behind the current backlog, Mr McCallion told the committee.

Despite fears the scandal would lead to a drop off in women availing of smear tests, health officials said more women were coming in for their routine test appointments. Mr McCallion said the service was also seeing women who had not availed of the screening programme now engaging in it.

Under the normal screening process, women aged 25-44 can get a free smear test every three years, and at five-year intervals between 45 and 60 years of age.

The State Claims Agency (SCA) is currently dealing with 73 active claims over the scandal, the committee heard.

Ciarán Breen, SCA director, said there were challenges in settling cases outside of the courts, primarily as private laboratories who read the tests were co-defendants in cases.

“We’re using mediation wherever we can . . .We’re trying to remove as much of the adversarial process as we can,” Mr Breen told the committee.