Tánaiste Simon Coveney has moved to quell fears for the future of the BreastCheck screening programme due to spiralling legal costs.

It comes after the National Clinical Director of BreastCheck raised concerns about the legal environment that has developed in recent weeks.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Professor Ann O'Doherty said 15 people have contacted her unit in the last two weeks in relation to legal issues, where previously she would have received around one case a year.

She said she is concerned that litigation costs will get so high that they will threaten the BreastCheck programme.

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Prof O'Doherty added that she has no problem with compensation for women who need it, but said there needed to be a forum where legal and medical professions could come together and afford women a settlement that would not divert huge taxpayer funds to legal costs.

She also reiterated that screening is not diagnostic and that is made clear to women who attend the service.

In nearly ten cases per 10,000 cases, cancer will not be detected.

Mr Coveney told the Dáil that the programme, which provides free mammograms for women, is performing well and saving lives.

He said that the programme would continue.

The Director of the State Claims Agency (SCA) told the Public Accounts Committee earlier this month that four claims arising from the National Breast Cancer Screening Programme have been lodged with the agency.

A medical negligence solicitor has claimed the 15 women who have written to BreastCheck were "not threatening legal action" but are seeking their records because they have a doubt about accuracy of information given previously.

Cian O'Carroll said the cost of legal actions should any negligence arise would come from the State Claims Agency, not BreastCheck or any other cancer screening programme.

Mr O'Carroll does not represent any of the 15 cases understood to have contacted BreastCheck.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr O'Carroll said that the matter showed an overall lack of trust in the cancer screening service.

He said that if a woman wants to have her records reviewed she "is entitled to do that" and there should be no cost to the State's screening programmes.

Mr O'Carroll said that people missed at screening do not have a right to legal action unless the standard of care received falls significantly below a certain level in the view of an independent expert.

He said the issue showed it was key that "quality issues" of screening programmes were looked at by clinical directors.

Mr O'Carroll said BreastCheck is highly successful as a programme and has achieved a very high level of diagnoses.

Professor John Crown, Consultant Oncologist at St Vincent's Hospital, said deaths from breast cancer are declining and that the BreastCheck programme has been one of the "great, great success stories of modern medicine".

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke, Prof Crown said the programme has had an important societal impact in Ireland.

Screening cannot, he said, give you the all clear and this is stated in the invitation letter sent to women to attend the programme.

He told the programme that BreastCheck has been audited by the top international European level reference agency, and has been awarded the highest level it has ever given any service.

Prof Crown said that running the breast and cervical checks currently costs €70 million a year.

He said there was a very realistic scenario where the costs of the lawsuits could cost many times more and making an economic allowance for this, would result in less money for cancer drugs, and other medical needs, such as surgical waiting lists.

He said he was a huge believer in open disclosure.

State Claims Agency disputes HSE evidence

Meanwhile, the Director of the SCA has disputed evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee by the HSE.

It was claimed at the committee last week that nobody in the HSE CervicalCheck division had told the SCA that all of the women whose smear tests were audited had been informed of this.

In a letter to the committee today, SCA Director Ciaran Breen said the agency's legal team had been told during a teleconference call on 20 April last that all the women had been informed.

The letter seen by RTÉ News said that this "reply was carefully noted and attached to the SCA's legal file".