Consultants sought four-month paid sabbaticals and increase to €252,000 salary

Cabinet this week approved long-awaited new public-only Sláintecare consultant contract after months of negotiations

Consultants sought four-month paid sabbaticals every seven years as part of a generous package that was shot down during pay talks, The Irish Times has learned.

In addition to the sabbatical, better pay than the €252,000 salary ultimately offered and longer grace periods to continue private work in public hospitals were sought, it is understood.

The Cabinet this week approved a long-awaited new public-only Sláintecare consultant contract after months of negotiations, which is now being considered by consultants’ representative groups.

It is understood the Department of Health rejected a range of concessions being sought by the consultants’ groups during negotiations, including that the salary of up to €252,000 per year be increased based on inflation, and that private patients be treated in public hospitals for a longer period than was ultimately offered.

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Consultants wanted up to 10 years’ grace period, arguing it was the same timeframe given for Sláintecare implementation, to be allowed to continue treating private patients in public hospitals, but it’s understood the contract allows for three years, with the amount of time permitted to continue giving private care reducing over the period.

When it comes to sabbaticals, medical sources argued they are common in industries with high levels of stress and burnout.

They also wanted pay and pension restoration for consultants hired after 2012 and to be allowed to continue giving care in public hospitals to private patients indefinitely for some specialisms, including maternity care. Medical sources said there are no private medical hospitals in the country, meaning private patients must be treated in public hospitals.

They sought the 4 per cent increases agreed between Government and the public sector unions in the Building Momentum public pay deal, but all these were knocked back during negotiations.

The terms of the deal were thrashed out in recent months with the Department of Health’s Secretary General Robert Watt leading talks with the Irish Medical Organisation and the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA).

The deal on the table will offer salaries up to €252,000 for consultants, who will be allowed to continue giving private care to patients off-site. Added extras bring total remuneration possible under the contract towards €300,000 annually.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said the implementation of the new contract “will maintain the momentum of reform and improvement in our health services”.

He said the ratio of consultants to the population in Ireland has “historically been far too low”.

It is hoped, sources said, that extended working hours contained in the contract will lead to a better flow of patients through hospitals, with more consultants present to discharge people over the weekend and also to assess people who may not ultimately need to be admitted after having seen a more senior doctor.

Under the terms of the contracts, consultants will work a 37-hour week within a window of 8am-10pm Monday to Friday and 8am to 6pm on a Saturday. They will be able to receive additional pay for on-call duties and overtime, and once they have met their commitments to the public contract, to engage in off-site private practice.

The consultants’ representative groups are reviewing the deal. In a guarded statement on Wednesday, the IHCA said it had “communicated our views on Minister Donnelly’s proposal consistently to both the Minister himself and the Secretary General of the Department of Health”.

It said that 900,000 people were on waiting lists to see hospital consultants and more than 900 permanent posts were unfilled. “Despite progress in discussions over the recent period, the Minister and Government have moved on and ended talks with representative bodies.”

“There remain a number of critically important issues that need to be addressed to ensure any proposed contract will reduce waiting times and address the consultant recruitment and retention crisis,” IHCA president Rob Landers said.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times