Cheap and cynical to blame medical staff
WHEN potential patients were counting the number of shopping days to Christmas last week, the Taoiseach panicked about the hospital trolley count in January. But his call for frontline medical staff to cancel holiday leave and deal with chaos in A&Es had more to do with media management than patient care.
Does he really believe that blaming it on the medical staff in early November will divert public anger from his government when scenes of suffering pensioners are on television in pantomime season?
No doubt his over-pensioned and underwhelming ministers think the Taoiseach’s cunning plan is inspired. But his graceless attempt to shift responsibility to medical professionals is as cheap as it is cynical.
There are many self-serving anomalies that benefit consultants and other hospital staff but the man ultimately responsible for the health service should not be seeking scapegoats with stethoscopes.
Leo Varadkar was Minister for Health from July 2014 until May 2016 and knew about the annual winter crisis in emergency departments then – just as the rest of us have known for years.
Trolley gridlock on hospital corridors is now as Christmassy as Jingle Bells – and ministerial handwringing on New Year’s Eve as seasonal as Auld Lang Syne.
The three Ms – men, money and machinery – were the answer to most questions since the industrial revolution but legacy problems in the Irish health service need another M – management.
The management of the health service has the money, currently €17bn-a-year, to fund it. The Lancet medical journal even quoted the Taoiseach’s grumble that if we pay the fifth highest amount of money per head on health, we should expect the fifth best health service.
SO OUR health service is more than adequately funded – but what is urgently needed is leadership, courage and perseverance. Back in 2005, politicians came up with a devilishly cunning plan: the HSE. It would pull together the old district health boards and manage them under the HSE logo while the Minister for Health handed down policy.
And it came with another enormous bonus for the government – the HSE as a whipping boy. Middle managers absorbed the blame that used to be heaped on the Minister for Health and remained anonymous when the country demanded someone be held responsible. That self-serving protocol was laid bare last week.
In an extraordinary interview, the now infamous former head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, exposed the brazen careerism and egotism of government ministers. He dumped on the incumbent Simon Harris yet praised the Taoiseach with whom he served for two years.
Ministers abandoned policies at the first ripple of public unease and made handbrake turns when tough decisions needed to be made. Expert reports that made sound medical sense for the public were binned if they threatened to embarrass politicians.
Tony O’Brien had to go after the Cervical Check scandal but he did the State some service. And last week’s interview suggests he and his ilk took the rap for many problems that were aggravated by politicians.
O’Brien spoke well of Mary Harney who actually asked to be appointed Minister for Health and whose cancer care strategy with Dr Tom Keane was, and is, a resounding success.
It is worth noting that Mary Harney was already thinking of retiring before moving to the department of health and doing the right thing.
And whatever else it is, blaming the medical staff for the shambles in the health service is not the right thing for a Taoiseach to do – particularly a medical doctor and former Minister for Health.