A local city councillor is calling for the resignation of Health Minister Mary Harney in the wake of recent reports that further budgetary cutbacks would result in the loss of 60 beds, 126 staff and two theatres at University Hospital Galway.
Cllr Catherine Connolly, a member of the HSE West’s Regional Health Forum, says such proposed cuts - revealed in a leaked letter from hospital management to the HSE - would be “unacceptable”.
Concerned public representatives warn the cutbacks would compromise the regional hospital’s ability to be a centre of excellence for cancer care as they would cause delays in accessing vital cancer surgery which would in turn adversely affect the delivery of cancer care in the region [UHG is one of eight cancer centres of excellence in the country].
“I’ve repeatedly called for Mary Harney to resign and this convinces me even more that she should go,” says Cllr Connolly. “She has made a total mess of the health service. She has presided over the privatisation of medicine. I’ve watched with utter disgust and dismay the deterioration of the public health service while the private health service is being built up. Both private hospitals in Galway are getting extensions while the public service is being deliberately undermined.”
She says it is difficult to appreciate the extent of the cutbacks proposed in the leaked document without knowing UHG’s full bed complement.
“We have never been given a figure for the entire beds in the hospital, it varies from 517 to 600. In July ‘06 we were told there were 608 beds, in September ‘08 it was 590, in July ‘07 it was 670 and Nov ‘08 it was 517.”
Meanwhile local Fine Gael TD Ulick Burke says cancer patients in Galway and the west have been “betrayed”.
“How on earth can UHG be a centre of excellence when services there are to be slashed so severely? The Government’s cancer strategy is in disarray and cancer patients in Galway and across the west have been betrayed. These cutbacks will have very severe, very human consequences and I dread to think the dire effect this will have on cancer rates and cancer survival across the west.”
He said while he recognised that public spending has to be curtailed targeting cancer services does not make sense.
“Ultimately, the Exchequer will be exposed to higher costs as patients will see cancer detected later and treatment will be more expensive. This further exposes the fact that the Government has completely failed to tackle the cancer crisis in Ireland.”
In a letter to Professor Brendan Drumm, the chief executive of the HSE, Deputy Burke said the implications of further cuts would have “severe implications” for UHG not only as a centre of excellence for cancer diagnosis, treatment and care but for all services being delivered by the HSE West.
“The proposed cutbacks of €15m would appear to involve the loss of 60 beds, 126 professional staff and the closure of two theatres at UHG for the second half of the year and the loss of one ICU bed. Needless to say the knock on impact of these proposed cutbacks would also become evident in longer waiting lists for access to services, delays in hospital admissions, and longer times spent on trolleys in A&E. Should these measures be implemented can HSE West afford the loss of 126 highly experienced and professionally trained staff?
“And further down the line how would the HSE West be able to replace or recruit such staff with the level of expertise, knowledge and skill that they possess. It would appear from these proposed cutbacks that the HSE are moving backward and not forward in commitments to reduce waiting lists and times for access to services.”
Deputy Burke said while he recognised the need to curtail unnecessary spending and wastage he hoped savings could be made through “better streamlining and productivity of management and administration, staff retraining, early retirement and goal motivation”.
He called for an urgent rescue plan to be formulated to ensure frontline services and patients’ needs remain the HSE’s top priority.
“We must ensure that the ability of UHG as a centre of excellence in oncology treatment will not be compromised and that any proposed budget cuts will not compromise patient care.”
However, the HSE West has insisted UHG’s cancer services are not under threat because of budgetary pressures.
Chris Kane, the regional co-ordinator of the Western Hospital Group, said there are “absolutely no plans” to curtail cancer services in Galway and the centre of excellence for cancer treatment is going ahead.
“Every hospital has to live within budget. In the case of GUH, this would mean less overtime, fewer locums and getting tough on absenteeism.
“We may be curtailing elective surgery but vital frontline and emergency services will be protected. The leaked internal letter quoted was a discussion paper only. It was never agreed. I would like to repeat that cancer services are not being cut and, in fact, we have got €2.2m in additional funding for cancer services in the west this year.”