'There are some things the State does better. Care of elderly must not be profit-led'


LAST NOVEMBER, the HSE announced it was closing Abbeyleix Community Nursing Unit, citing funding and staffing issues in the Co Laois facility.

The 28 long-stay residents, their families and the wider community were not having it, however. Within days of the HSE announcement, 1,000 people attended a public meeting in the town to save the hospital.

Ten days later, up to 5,000 people, including many who had travelled from Galway, Portlaoise, Kildare, Dublin, Wicklow and Louth, marched in the town. The following month, three of the elderly residents, Maureen Delaney (89), Bridget O’Neill (92) and Catherine Kelly (93), challenged the planned shutdown in the High Court, forcing the HSE to quash the planned closure pending consultation with the residents.

The consultation process has just finished, with a report due to go to Minister for Health James Reilly by mid-September.

“I just knew closing the hospital would be a disastrous mistake,” says Gary O’Keefe, local businessman and spokesman for the Abbeyleix and District Hospital Action Group.

Explaining why he attended that meeting last November and agreed to get involved in the battle, he said: “I live locally and place great value on community presence. I knew it was a wrong decision to close the hospital, that it would still be a wrong decision in seven, eight, 10 years from now. And if we didn’t save it now, we’d never get it back.”

The strategy has been to keep public pressure on the HSE and also to pick apart its arguments.

“They said it was financially unviable, that it wasn’t meeting Hiqa standards and that there would be staff shortages because of retirements and the moratorium on recruitment.

“We had financial experts who showed that it could be viable. In March this year, Hiqa gave it a positive report and no one has retired or is due to.”

At a second march, in April, about 3,000 people rallied in the town in support of the hospital. In a letter read to the crowd, Ms O’Neill said she did not want to leave friends she had at her home of four years, and called on the Minister to “leave us in peace”.

Mr O’Keefe said the campaign has made links with groups in Galway, Dublin and Drogheda fighting to keep their community nursing homes open. “We know these homes have to be cost-effective and we are not against private nursing homes per se,” he said.

“But there are just some things the State does better. Care of the elderly must be open, democratic, transparent and, critically, not profit-led.”