State in­quiry into can­cer scan­dal

■ Phe­lan re­veals treat­ment has seen ‘sig­nif­i­cant’ tumour shrink­ing

Irish Examiner - - Front Page - Elaine Lough­lin, Noel Baker, and Fi­achra Ó Cion­naith

A full com­mis­sion of in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cer­vi­cal can­cer scan­dal is to be es­tab­lished in Septem­ber, Health Min­is­ter Si­mon Har­ris has con­firmed.

It came as Vicky Phe­lan re­vealed there has been “sig­nif­i­cant” shrink­ing of her tu­mours af­ter just three treat­ments of the drug pem­brolizumab through a clin­i­cal trial.

Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar also sug­gested up to 200 more women could be af­fected by the cer­vi­cal can­cer tests scan­dal af­ter it was re­vealed the num­ber of women tak­ing le­gal ac­tion has surged to 46 since the cri­sis emerged.

Speak­ing to re­porters in Madrid, Mr Varad­kar said: “I don’t want to spec­u­late on that num­ber yet but it will be ob­vi­ously more than zero but prob­a­bly less than 100, less than 200.”

Mr Har­ris said a com­mis­sion of in­ves­ti­ga­tion will go ahead from the au­tumn, while the scop­ing in­quir­ing be­ing car­ried out by Dr Gabriel Scally would con­tinue through­out the sum­mer months.

“I am con­cerned that there seems to be a view that there may be a com­mis­sion or there won’t be a com­mis­sion, let me be very clear there will be a com­mis­sion of in­quiry and I would like to set that in­quiry up in Septem­ber,” said Mr Har­ris.

“I be­lieve that a com­mis­sion of in­ves­ti­ga­tion is needed to get to the bot­tom of many of the is­sues, par­tic­u­lar is­sues in re­la­tion to ac­count­abil­ity, who knew what where and when. That’s not Dr Scally’s job and Dr Scally is very clear on that.”

How­ever, Mr Har­ris said set­ting up a com­mis­sion im­me­di­ately, as called for by mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion, would not be right.

“If you just threw ev­ery­thing into a com­mis­sion now, I think there is a le­git­i­mate con­cern that that would go on and on,” he said.

The news came as cer­vi­cal can­cer pa­tient Ms Phe­lan re­vealed that there has been “sig­nif­i­cant” shrink­ing of her can­cer tu­mours af­ter just three treat­ments of the drug pem­brolizumab through a clin­i­cal trial.

The drug, which she has been tak­ing un­der its trade name Keytruda, prompted her on­col­o­gist to de­scribe the development as “ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic news”.

She also told RTE’s Ray D’Arcy Show that her doc­tor had said: “You don’t re­alise how big this is for can­cer and for can­cer pa­tients.”

In May2 016,pem­bro liz um ab, along­side an­other drug, nivolumab, was at the cen­tre of con­tro­versy when on­col­o­gists crit­i­cised de­lays in fund­ing the treat­ments here, amid a row be­tween the HSE and the drug man­u­fac­tur­ers over the cost of the treat­ment.

On the cur­rent scop­ing ex­er­cise, Ms Phe­lan said: “I am a lit­tle frus­trated at the mo­ment, I thought we would be fur­ther along at this stage.”

It has also emerged that at least 46 women are tak­ing le­gal ac­tion against the State over botched can­cer screen­ing tests.

The fig­ures from the State Claims Agency di­rec­tor Ciaran Breen were re­vealed as a HSE of­fi­cial pre­dicted the 209 women al­ready known to be af­fected by the cer­vi­cal can­cer cri­sis will rise sig­nif­i­cantly over the com­ing months.

Speak­ing dur­ing a fourhour meet­ing with the Dáil Pub­lic Ac­counts Com­mit­tee, Mr Breen said be­fore Ms Phe­lan’s High Court case in mid-April, 11 women were in the process of tak­ing cases against the State. In the weeks that have fol­lowed, that fig­ure has surged to at least 46, with a num­ber of other cases ex­pected.

Mr Breen said that ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ures, five women are tak­ing cases against Cer­vi­cal Check, in­clud­ing one case — Ms Phe­lan’s — which has been set­tled.

Against the back­drop of the Cer­vi­calCheck scan­dal, lat­est fig­ures from the Na­tional Treat­ment Pur­chase Fund show al­most 28,000 women are on gy­nae­col­ogy wait­ing lists, of whom in ex­cess of 5,000 are wait­ing more than a year. In­evitably some of these women will have un­di­ag­nosed ma­lig­nan­cies. They have yet to re­ceive a first ap­point­ment at a con­sul­tant’s clinic.

The HSE’s in­terim di­rec­tor gen­eral de­nies that of­fi­cials are try­ing to de­lay the Scally cer­vi­cal can­cer tests in­quiry by fail­ing to pro­vide search­able records, amid grow­ing fears that the State in­ves­ti­ga­tion is be­ing blocked.

In­terim di­rec­tor gen­eral John Con­naghan is­sued the staunch HSE de­fence as he said elec­tronic, search­able ver­sions of the records were al­ways avail­able and as of­fi­cials said that lab­o­ra­tory con­tracts key to the scan­dal will be re­leased next week.

Speak­ing as an­other se­nior HSE of­fi­cial faced calls to re­sign af­ter it emerged that he wrongly told politi­cians he never told the State Claims Agency all women af­fected were in­formed of what hap­pened last year, Mr Con­naghan said he wants all files to be made avail­able to Gabriel Scally’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Mr Con­naghan said that due to “tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions”, 4,000 doc­u­ments for the in­quiry which could have been sent elec­tron­i­cally, thereby mak­ing them search­able, were in­stead printed out and scanned, lead­ing to a back­lash over the move.

Mr Con­naghan said the move could not be avoided due to the tech­ni­cal “bar­rier”.

How­ever, he was im­me­di­ately crit­i­cised by Fine Gael TD Kate O’Con­nell, who said “there was a dif­fer­ent kind of bar­rier — a hu­man bar­rier”.

Fac­ing ques­tions from Labour TD Alan Kelly, Mr Con­naghan said that due to the con­cerns raised by Dr Scally over ac­cess­ing files he met with the head of the State in­quiry yes­ter­day and com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing all doc­u­ments within 30 days.

Asked specif­i­cally what this in­cludes amid claims from Mr Kelly that “if there was ever a row of events that sym­bol­ise the arse-cov­er­ing in the HSE, it is this [the cer­vi­cal can­cer tests cri­sis]”, Mr Con­naghan said that the file ac­cess will in­clude the key con­tracts given to US lab­o­ra­to­ries which will be made pub­lic next week.

Mean­while, an­other se­nior HSE of­fi­cial is fac­ing calls to re­sign over the tests scan­dal af­ter ad­mit­ting that he wrongly told politi­cians last month that he never told the State Claims Agency that all women af­fected were told of what hap­pened.

Mr Glee­son yes­ter­day ad­mit­ted that what he told the Pub­lic Ac­counts Com­mit­tee (PAC) was in­cor­rect, adding that he be­lieved the ini­tial ques­tion was about “an­other meet­ing I wasn’t in­volved in” and that “I cer­tainly did not in­tend to cre­ate any con­fu­sion”.

How­ever, Sinn Féin TD David Cul­li­nane said it is clear Mr Glee­son’s po­si­tion is un­ten­able, and di­rectly ask­ing the HSE of­fi­cial if he should now re­sign.

So­cial Democrats TD Cather­ine Mur­phy said the in­cor­rect records pro­vided to the PAC in re­cent weeks means it is now fair to ask “how can we trust any in­for­ma­tion” given to the cross-party group by the HSE.

Sim­i­larly, Ms O’Con­nell said: “I just won­der what is the point of all of you” in se­nior HSE po­si­tions, adding: “I just think the whole lot of you should be sent pack­ing.”

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