Private patients a priority - memo


A new principle of "apartheid" is being introduced in hospital accident and emergency units with priority going to patients with health insurance, the Labour Party leader claimed yesterday in the Dail.

Mr Ruairi Quinn said that St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, which receives substantial public funding, had issued a memo about a decision to designate a particular ward as a "15-bed seven day unit for Accident & Emergency patients with priority being given to patients with private health insurance cover".

Mr Quinn said the memo related to a particular ward rather than a unit "but the principle has been introduced". He asked if this had been done with Government consent.

The Tánaiste, Ms Harney, said she would be surprised if accident and emergency cases at St Vincent's or any other hospital were discriminated against.

She was unaware of the memo but said "the management of a hospital on a day-to-day basis is a matter for that hospital. We are all concerned to ensure that anyone who comes to a hospital as an accident and emergency case is dealt with on the basis of their need and not on any other basis". However, she added that she would draw the memo to the attention of the Minister for Health, Mr Martin.

Mr Quinn said the Minister for Health had political and statutory responsibility as well as power to issue guidelines. He called for a Government "undertaking" that such guidelines would be issued so that there would be no distinction between public and private patients.

Mr Phil Hogan (FG, Carlow-Kilkenny) said it was clear that "people's illnesses are not taken into account, but that the strength of their bank balance is more important in terms of getting access to health care".

The Tánaiste said however that the Government was committed to ensuring people had access to health care on the basis of medical need, not financial means.

Ms Harney said the ratio of public to private beds in hospitals in recent years, which should be 80:20, had gone to 71:29. This was "unacceptable", she added.