Upgraded hospital in Howlin constituency was not a HSE priority - FoI documents

Sunday 03 February 2013 19.29
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An upgrade to  Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin's local hospital was not a priority
An upgrade to Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin's local hospital was not a priority
Wexford General Hospital's Emergency Dept had received limited design funding up to late April 2011
Wexford General Hospital's Emergency Dept had received limited design funding up to late April 2011

Upgrading the local hospital in Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin's constituency was not a priority in the HSE Capital Plan, according to new documents from the Department of Health.

The documents were released to RTÉ's This Week under the Freedom of Information Act.

An internal department letter shows that upgrades to Wexford General Hospital's Emergency Dept had received limited design funding up to late April 2011.

However, the document explicitly states: "Neither was a priority project then".

Other documents already released to This Week showed that the Minister for Health requested that Wexford General Hospital and St Luke’s Hospital Kilkenny be accelerated in the Capital Plan.

This required an increase to the HSE capital budget for Wexford, which was granted by Mr Howlin, who is also TD for the Wexford constituency.

In answer to enquiries as to why extra capital funding had been approved for Wexford within two months of this letter, Mr Howlin’s department replied that: "The proposed extension to Wexford General Hospital features in the HSE Regional Service Plan for 2011 and preceding years.

"Planning permission for the project was lodged by the HSE in 2010 and granted by Wexford Borough Council in 2011. Design and planning work commenced as far back as 2009.”

An official in Mr Howlin’s department also makes particular mention of Wexford in the letter sanctioning the HSE Capital Plan in which provision had been made for the increased funding for the hospital project.

On 30 June 2011, the newly released Department of Health documents show a Principal Officer in the Department of Public Expenditure and reform wrote to an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health to inform him that: "In order to avoid any delays in respect of making commitments for new projects in the plan in respect of which funding is in place and which are not effected by the outstanding issues, (including Wexford Emergency Department and Maternity Projects at a total cost of €20m), I am to convey sanction to non-ICT capital expenditure”.

Other documents already released by the HSE also showed that an official in the Department of Health questioned whether the Director of Estates in the HSE, Brian Gilroy, needed the specific written direction to approve the Kilkenny and Wexford upgrades.

Mr Gilroy had asked for written confirmation of changes to the capital plan following announcements by Mr Howlin and Environment Minister Phil Hogan of the commencement of work on their local hospitals in early June 2011 some days before a HSE Board meeting on 9 June.

Board minutes show the ministerial announcements about the hospitals were queried by Mr Gilroy, who was unaware of the new timelines for the proposed hospital upgrades.

Dr Reilly was also questioned about the role he played in the upgrade to St Luke’s in July 2011 by Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness.

Mr McGuinness received the following reply: "The management and delivery of the health capital programme is a service matter. I will revert to you with a detailed reply when I have received the facts from the Health Service Executive".

In answer to opposition questions in the Dáil during the week about the acceleration of the hospital upgrades, the Minister for Health said: "I cannot continue to make the progress required in health if I tolerate such poor standards. I am taking a hands-on approach, as I promised in Opposition and on taking office, and delivering results for patients."

A spokesman for the minister also reiterated that the decisions to upgrade Wexford and St Luke’s hospitals were the work of the minister.

In a statement he said: "The Minister for Health has confirmed that he did request the HSE to expedite the projects in Wexford and Kilkenny and he did so for good reason.

"Minister Reilly had made the decision and had done so in a transparent manner by way of a letter to the HSE board.

"The decisions re Wexford and Kilkenny A and E's were taken as the minister (the Government) was appointing Dr Martin Connor to set up the Special Delivery Unit.

"Mr Reilly always made clear his intention to revise priorities in line with the Programme for Government.

"The setting up of the SDU was part of a strategy to make major improvements in the nation’s emergency departments. The expediting of the projects in Wexford and Kilkenny is part of this process."

Former minister of state at the Department of Health Róisín Shortall said the information uncovered went to the heart of some of the concerns that she had within the department.

She said there needed to be a system of prioritisation so that spending is targeted where it is most needed.

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