Political Notebook: Health of the nation

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And so the health timebomb ticks away… There is no point in scapegoating the Minister, Dr James Reilly, as we observe a health service in freefall.

And so the health timebomb ticks away… There is no point in scapegoating the Minister, Dr James Reilly, as we observe a health service in freefall.

Dr Reilly inherited a mess which, inexplicably, could not even be sorted out in the good times when the State’s coffers were bulging with money.

Year after wretched year, Minister after Minister, saw no change in the running of a service that is so vital to the Irish people.

Brian Cowen famously called the Department, “Angola’’, and he was lucky that political events saw him leave for the much more tranquil political pastures in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He was followed by Micheal Martin, who commissioned report after report, now gathering dust, like so many other useless reports, in Government departments.

At least, Mr Martin did leave one health initiative, the ban on smoking. And to achieve it, he had to take on Fianna Fail’s so-called friends, the publicans. But he failed to bring about the kind of reforms so badly needed. When Mary Harney took over the Department, she was hell bent on reform. She, too, failed.

Meanwhile, the Health Service Executive, which was to be the answer to all problems, grew into a bureaucratic Frankenstein.

Going back over the decades, can any outstanding Minister for Health be identified? Noel Browne, perhaps, who in the late 1940s dealt with the scourge of TB.But who else?

Scapegoating the Ministers, mind you, is not good enough. Collective Cabinet responsibility should apply across those important departments which affect people’s lives so much. And one is certainly Health.

Cuts of 666 million euro have been imposed on health services. The HSE service plan, due shortly, is likely to show where the pain will be felt as the cuts dig deep.

It would be laughable, if it was not so tragic, that all this is taking place against a backdrop of a Government promise to introduce a universal health insurance system where the state of a person’s health, rather than the cost involved, is the priority.

Where, in the name of goodness, is the money to finance such a scheme going to come from?

Meanwhile, those with private health insurance, many hanging on to it by their fingertips, will be paying even more following the reduction in tax relief in the budget.

It is hard not to conclude that the introduction of free GP care for young children, introduced in the budget, was no more than a gimmick to put a gloss on a series of harsh measures. At any other time, it would represent a worthy relief to hard-pressed parents with young children.

But is it being introduced at the expense, for instance, of those who might need a discretionary medical card?

What of Dr Reilly? He came to politics without much experience of the cut and thrust of grassroots activity. He was a key supporter of Enda Kenny when his leadership was threatened in the abortive heave launched by Richard Bruton.

When Fine Gael secured power, it was inevitable that he would be allocated the Department of Health. He took to his post with energy. And he has had some achievements to his credit.

A weekend poll showed that just over half of voters have confidence in him, a figure that might surprise many. It shows that the public can be way ahead of politicians in these matters.

Clearly, a significant number of people understand that Dr Reilly is not exclusively to blame for the woes of the health services. It is time that his Cabinet colleagues, or at least those who are happy to run from their part in that responsibility, realised the same.

Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Social Protection and Health are now the key ministries. And it is time that a Cabinet sub-committee, jointly chaired by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Dr Reilly, was set up to oversee the much-needed reform of the health services.

If outside help is required, then it should be sought.And if a level of ruthlessness is required in finally getting things right, then so be it.

Quite literally, lives are at stake.

As this Government settles into the second half of its term, time will cease to be on its side before it knows it.