Irish protests continue over hospital cuts

Protests over the €1.23 billion spending cuts for health and children’s services imposed last year to combat a massive government deficit are growing in Ireland and even causing some ministers to rethink their positions.

Two Teachta Dálas, members of the lower house of the Irish Parliament, angered by health cuts are threatening to withdraw their support for the ruling coalition government. Mattie McGrath, a maverick TD for Tipperary, said his future support for the Fianna Fáil/Green/Progressive Democrat coalition for which he was elected would depend upon the future of South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel.

McGrath’s political break followed a similar announcement from the west coast, with Galway West Independent TD Noel Grealish announcing at a protest in Galway attended by some 350 people that he was withdrawing his support for the coalition.

Political protests have had an effect resulting in limiting the scope of some cutbacks. Last year thousands of pensioners marched against plans to axe free medical care for people over 70 and managed to make the government rethink its position, even though it has refused to rule out a cut in pensions.

Nevertheless, hospital bed closings across the country in Galway, Cork, Ballinasloe, Kilkenny, Crumlin, Naas and Letterkenny mean longer waiting times for get into a hospital for treatment. Because of funding cuts for home care, the elderly are being left in hospitals longer, further exacerbating the waiting times for services.

But the cuts have continued. The health budget for 2010 was fixed at just €14.83 billion, a 5 percent cut from the €15.6 billion spent in 2009. In February reported that Health Service Executive (HSE) planned to close up to 1,100 beds from April, on top of 900 closed in 2009. It also planned to cut numbers of patients admitted to hospital by up to 54,000 in addition to raising the amount medical card holders must pay for prescription drugs.

There also are sharp pay cuts planned for health care workers.

The Irish Times reported plans for specific cuts in Navan Hospital, Louth and Dundalk, including a ban on using agency staff to fill vacancies. Kealan Flynn writes in an op-ed in the Irish Medical Times about the impact of the cuts on small hospitals and how they are disappearing. “Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan is as good as finished. Patients needing emergency or elective surgery must go elsewhere—or go without, if the hospitals that are supposed to fill the gap cannot,” Flynn notes.

It’s fair to say that ordinary folks in Ireland are worried by the government’s hard line with the hospitals. This summer thousands of people took to the streets to protest these changes in their health care system – 4,000 in Mullingar, County Westmeath, where 20 percent of the 200 beds at Midland Regional Hospital were closed last November; staff was cut and were not replaced. In the accident and emergency department patients were left waiting on trolleys and chairs.

In Roscommon, 8,000 joined a street protest over warnings that their local hospital might be closed.

In Kilkenny, people with disabilities, especially those recently disabled who require daily or 24-hour assistance are finding services cut for them, too.

In late June in Limerick, Prime Minister Brian Cowen faced an angry lobby of 100 relatives of family members who have learning disabilities, furious at the cutbacks in respite care at the Brothers of Charity respite facility, the result of a €1m cuts package.

In Galway, the HSE scrapped support services for amputees in need of artificial limbs and foot-support devices. Patients holding the basic medical card are no longer able to access these services: orthotics will be available to hospital in-patients.

And so it goes in the Emerald Isle when patients’ needs clash with fiscal realities, a spectre facing all of Europe.

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