No apology from debt default Minister for Stubbs Gazette debacle – but Government unfazed
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“15 months ago, when my Government came into office, we made it one of our top priorities to restore Ireland’s international reputation,” The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, told an international medical conference at the National Conference Centre in June.
Kenny and his Government tend to take every opportunity to bang the drum on the reputation issue and their collective determination to restore it internationally in every aspect. Yet they now appear unfazed by the spectacle of one of the most senior members of the Cabinet, Minister for Health and Fine Gael Deputy Leader, Dr. James Reilly, being cited in Stubbs Gazette for debt default and failure to comply with a High Court Order to discharge that debt.
It’s unprecedented. It’s embarrassing. It potentially creates a tagline that will follow the Minister and his colleagues – The ‘Stubbs Gazette Government’. It doesn’t do much for Ireland’s international reputation – or with the citizens of this state – to have a minister in situ who is in breach of a High Court order. In short, it’s unacceptable.
Yet in his personal statement to the Dail last night, James Reilly offered no hint of apology to his Taoiseach and party leader, his own party colleagues, his Labour Party partners in government for the embarrassment and ridicule which his messy business affairs have visited upon them. Instead, the nation was treated to a convoluted explanation of the complex business arrangement surrounding the Minister’s interest in the 55- bed private Greenhills Nursing Home in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary.
In the course of his statement, Dr. Reilly emphasised that he had no operational role in the management of this nursing home.
Perhaps it’s just as well. The services provided in this establishment appear rudimentary and spartan, to say the least of it. As listed on the ‘My home from home.ie’ website, there is no room assigned for private visits to residents, no visiting by pets, no flexibility in mealtimes or diet on offer , no chiropodist, dietician, occupational therapist, optician or physiotherapist available to residents. No library facility, music or dance, daily exercise regime, evening entertainment or pet therapy on offer.
Nor do the HIQA assessments of this facility provide a glowing endorsement of the consistency of its compliance with Health Act requirements. http://www.hiqa.ie/social-care/find-a-centre/nursing-homes/greenhill-nursing-home.
If Greenhills is typical of what’s on offer, then the quality of life that elderly people in need of residential care will experience in such facilities is inferior to what, in my personal experience of my own family, has traditionally been available in public nursing homes.
Then again, as Dr. Reilly also emphasised in his statement, he has “repeatedly stated that I believe too many of our older people are being placed in Long Term Care and should instead be in their own homes.”
“Health journalists and others know this already,” Dr. Reilly said, “but I will shortly be announcing a major new initiative aimed at empowering older persons to stay in their own homes rather than go into Long Term Care at all.
“I have already revealed that €28 million euro will be invested in a range of measures – including new pathways through our hospitals – with the intention of giving the greatest possible assistance to older persons to stay in their homes, which the vast majority of people want to do.
“I do not have a conflict of interest. I have a single interest and that is the best interests of older persons and patients under our health services.”
There’s no question mark, then, over the Minister’s political integrity in this area of policy. Or there wouldn’t be if the spectre of a ‘leak’ to the Daily Mail newspaper in the run-up to last year’s budget wasn’t around to muddy the waters.
That ill-fated leak in November last year suggested that 800 beds would have to be taken out of the public elderly care facilities and listed public sector residential homes likely to be affected. They weren’t in compliance with HIQA standards, some buildings were too old and it would cost up to 900m euro to refurbish them to an acceptable standard. There was simply no Exchequer funds available to bring them up to scratch or to maintain adequate levels of staffing.
Labour Senator, John Whelan, angrily suggested that there seemed to be a strategy within the HSE to close down all the 120 state-run community nursing homes. The threat to close a nursing home in Abbeyleix had already brought 3,000 people onto the streets in protest: that closure has since been put on hold through a court action brought by three of its elderly residents. Other closures, including reductions in bed spaces within a number of institutions, have gone ahead.
In a Seanad debate on 30th November 2011, several senators raised a ‘conflict of interest’ charge against the Minister, given his own involvement as a shareholder in the private nursing homes business. Things were not helped by the fact that the CEO of Nursing Homes Ireland, Mr Tadgh Daly, had commented in the media that there were 2,000 empty beds available in the private sector, unwittingly giving rise to the impression that the private sector could pick up the slack from public sector closures. Senators also pointed to the 4.5% reductions in home help hours and curtailment of GP hours, services essential to keeping elderly people in their own homes. On the HIQA standards, Senator David Norris pithily observed:
“ We are closing institutions on the basis of hypothetical standards of perfection we will probably not be able to reach anywhere…”
Against the background of his performance to date, how much credibility can be reposed in any 28m euro plan brought forward now by the Minister designed to keep the elderly in their homes?
Compared with his ebullience and bluster as Opposition Spokesperson on Health, Dr. Reilly’s performance since taking over the health portfolio has been patchy to say the least. The Board of the HSE was sacked, but there’s been no discernible improvement in services, rahter the reverse. As elsewhere throughout the public service, the retirement plan for key expert health staff was botched. The health service is currently running about 280m euro in excess of its 2012 budget. The grand plan for health and key item in the Fine Gael 5 point plan in the 2011 general election – the introduction of a healthcare system on the Dutch model with free services for all – appears more remote than ever.
Dr. Reilly is no humble and insignificant backbencher. He is at the centre of this Government and hugely influential within his own party as its Deputy Leader. At the close of his statement last night he set out the scale of his laudable ambition and his commitment to reform:
“I entered politics late in life. I did so in pursuit of no business interest whatsoever.
I did so because I passionately believe that we can provide better services to our citizens. I passionately believe that we must put the patient at the heart of what we do in the health services.”
Right now, it rings hollow.