Ireland: Joe Higgins denounces “creeping privatisation of Irish health care”

"The Government is giving hundreds of millions of euro in tax breaks to profit-seeking speculators, to build for-profit hospitals."

The following exchange between Joe Higgins TD (member of Irish parliament) for the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) and Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), took place in Dáil Éireann [Irish parliament] during Leaders’ Questions on 25 April 2006.

socialistworld.net

Joe Higgins denounces “creeping privatisation of Irish health care”

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party)

At the Irish Medical Organisation conference last weekend doctors committed to the public health service, as opposed to those who see health as a source of speculation or profit, raised strong questions on Government policy in facilitating private hospitals with generous tax breaks and other concessions. How does the Taoiseach answer the assertion from those who are deeply committed to public health care, backed by international and other sources that they do not support the creeping privatisation of Irish health care that the Government is facilitating, either as the most effective use of resources or the best health care for patients? The pernicious greed espoused by the Progressive Democrats [a right wing party in the coalition government] as a recipe for Irish society, with the Taoiseach’s blessing, involves a relentless, creeping privatisation in the health service. Witness the so called Comfort Keepers franchise being brought in from America for old people. We used to think Colonel Sanders was responsible only for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but our old people are now to be put at his mercy.

The Government is giving hundreds of millions of euro in tax breaks to profit-seeking speculators, to build for-profit hospitals. How does the Taoiseach reconcile that while the Health Service Executive says no more public hospital beds are needed, the Government is facilitating the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of private beds? Is there not a contradiction there? Independent Deputies here have frequently told me of their desperation of finding public beds for ill constituents, and this brings home to us strongly that the thousands of beds cut by the Government’s predecessors in the 1980s particularly need to be restored, especially in light of a large and increasing population. How does the Taoiseach answer those assertions and how does he justify those valuable tax breaks for private profit seekers to cherry-pick areas of the health service in which they want to invest with no plan or overall consideration for people, particularly those who are vulnerable and not wealthy, and the needs of the population generally? Does the Government not need to put in the necessary resources to provide the beds, long-stay care and step-down facilities, rather than facilitate private speculators in health care?

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach [Irish prime minister]

Many public hospitals already have a private hospital on the grounds. The Tánaiste’s [Deputy prime minister] announcement last year that she would support the building of private hospitals on the grounds of acute public hospitals where they are not already there was to ensure that beds taken up on a private basis by consultants who have contracts that allow them to do private work, are moved into the new private hospitals and that the replace hospitals provide public beds.

The second issue is the debate on how many more public and private beds we need. There are many different views on that. The Government’s view is that we require more private beds. We have produced approximately 900 over the last few years and there are plans for many more in hospitals around the country. Based the number of people who have private health insurance there is demand for day and private beds in those locations.

Dr. Cowley

Because they cannot get public beds.

The Taoiseach

Those who pay for private medicine are entitled to private health care.

Dr. Cowley

The Government is creating more parasites.

Mr. D. Ahern

Deputy Cowley is the richest man in this House. He is a hypocrite.

Dr. Cowley

There is no emergency service.

An Ceann Comhairle [Speaker]

Deputy Cowley’s colleague is entitled to hear the Taoiseach’s reply.

The Taoiseach

The purpose is to get better, more efficient use of staff on one campus by having the public beds together and allowing the staff to work on the campus in the hours outside their public commitment. It makes sense and is widely supported by medical staff.

Ms McManus

That is not true. Prof. Brendan Drumm does not support that.

The Taoiseach

In the late 1980s there were practically no day-care cases. Because now over 500,000 cases are day care, figures from the late 1980s are not comparable with today’s. The first people to oppose that would be the consultants because they deal with more than 500,000 cases on a day care basis, which is not how it was 15 years ago.

Mr. J. Higgins (Socialist Party)

Did it ever strike the Taoiseach that it is those who are genuinely committed to public health care and the health service who oppose the privatisation policy of his Government whereas those who favour it are the speculators, including certain sections of the medical profession who seek to gain by investing – in other words, speculating – in health care? The Taoiseach showed himself prominently on Easter Sunday during the 1916 commemoration claiming to honour the memory of those who fought. What does the Taoiseach believe James Connolly, the great socialist –

Mr. Kelleher

There were a few more than James there.

Mr. J. Higgins

—–would think of a Government that pushes for a private hospital on the grounds of a public hospital named after him, with the Government providing huge tax breaks to the speculators who would take up that venture? He would be as withering about the Taoiseach and his Government’s policy as he was towards their equivalents in his own day.

Will the Taoiseach state which policy will be implemented? Professor Drumm of the HSE stated that no extra public beds are needed whereas the Taoiseach has just said and the Government stated that more beds are needed.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Deputy’s time is concluded.

Mr. J. Higgins

Whose view will prevail? Who is running the country?

Mr. Durkan

That is a good question.

Mr. J. Higgins

How many public beds, which he should already have provided, does the Taoiseach suggest should be provided and how many will he provide? Does he acknowledge that citing figures, as frequently happens, in regard to the billions of euro invested in the health service does not elucidate the question whatsoever? In fact, we are lower by far than the EU average criterion with regard to public health spending. More resources are needed to provide acute hospital beds, as well as long-stay and step-down facilities.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Deputy’s time is concluded.

Mr. J. Higgins

The Taoiseach should not try to confuse the issue by referring to day patients and the like. There is now a tendency in certain quarters to push women who have just given birth out of the hospital on the evening of the birth or the next morning. That is not real health care for our people.

The Taoiseach

The Deputy asked a range of questions which jumped around the specialties in the health service. I will try to answer them. Professor Drumm stated that the beds that are at present planned or under construction should be finished and then we will not require any more. Therefore, the issue the Deputy raises will not arise until those beds are finished.

Mr. McCormack

That is nonsense. The Government should start listening.

An Ceann Comhairle

Order, please.

The Taoiseach

I am trying to answer Deputy Joe Higgins. The Deputy referred to the consultants who would be totally committed to the public sector. I agree with that point. The Tánaiste in her reform proposal would like to make provision whereby we could have public consultants. As the Deputy knows, that is not the position for the entire consultant staff, given that others work on a 9:11 sessional basis and are not interested in becoming public consultants only. We must make provision for those staff. The Deputy will agree that where at present in acute public hospitals a number of the designated beds in what are public wards is designated private—–

Mr. Stagg

That is the worst excuse I have ever heard for privatising them. It is a new one.

An Ceann Comhairle: It is Deputy Joe Higgins’ question. I ask Deputy Stagg to allow him to hear the answer. The Taoiseach without interruption.

The Taoiseach

I was making the point in reply to Deputy Higgins that in a public hospital, where there are public beds in public wards and other beds are designated private, it would make better use of the management and the medical and nursing provision if those beds were designated public in their entirety. When consultants operate in private wards, which is what they want to do, and which is the service wanted by a huge proportion of the population, they can do so in private hospitals.

Mr. J. Higgins

A huge number do not want private medicine. They are driven to it.

An Ceann Comhairle

The question has gone five minutes over time. Allow the Taoiseach to answer.

Mr. D. Ahern

It will free up public beds in public hospitals.

The Taoiseach

This is not new. This arrangement has been happening in hospitals for half a century.

Dr. Cowley

The Government wants to build brand new hospitals for private patients.

An Ceann Comhairle

I ask Deputy Cowley do desist.

Dr. Cowley

The Government takes away public services to provide income tax breaks.

A Deputy: The Deputy is dead right.

Ms McManus: Will the Ceann Comhairle ask the Taoiseach to be factually accurate? What he has said is simply not accurate. Maybe somebody should brief him on health as well.

Mr. D. Ahern

I thought the Deputy was moved.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Chair wishes to speak. Leaders’ Questions is provided for leaders of parties to ask a question on a single topical issue.

Ms McManus

They are entitled to an accurate answer.

An Ceann Comhairle

The leaders of the parties now have a habit of going three, four, five and up to seven minutes over the time allotted to them.

A Deputy

That is correct.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Chair will not tolerate a situation where the member of Government responding cannot be heard and put his or her contribution on the record of the House.

Ms McManus

Whether it is true or not.

An Ceann Comhairle

I appeal to leaders to make up their minds what they want in terms of Leaders’ Questions and perhaps bring in a Standing Order that the Chair can implement. I ask, first, that leaders desist from going over time and, second, that all Members of the House will allow every Member, including the leaders of the Opposition parties and the Taoiseach, to be heard in this House and have their contribution on the record. I call the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

Mr. Kenny

That contribution was three and a half minutes in itself.

The Taoiseach

I will abide by your ruling, a Cheann Comhairle, but I have a difficulty.

Mr. McEntee

That is putting a spin on it.

The Taoiseach

I have asked my party and Government colleagues not to interrupt the leaders but, unfortunately, the leaders of the Opposition refuse to make any effort to control the Members on their backbenches.

Mr. Howlin

What about Dermot?

A Deputy

What about Deputy Kelleher?

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach

I am in a position—–

Mr. Rabbitte

The reason for that is that this is a Parliament not a courtroom.

The Taoiseach

I accept that.

An Ceann Comhairle

Allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

The Taoiseach

Deputy Rabbitte would not prefer if I just let my 40 or 50 colleagues interrupt him non-stop. We would be very good at doing that.

Mr. Rabbitte

If they have anything to say, they are welcome to say it.

Mr. Stanton

Let them off the collar. The Taoiseach has put his foot in it now.

Mr. Rabbitte

All they need is a sheepdog to round them up.

Mr. O’Donoghue

We would need Joe with the rifle then.

The Taoiseach

If Deputy Rabbitte wants it that way, perhaps he should ask the questions and I will send a written reply.

Mr. O’Donoghue

Where is Joe, by the way? We would need Joe with the rifle.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach

It is entirely unfair that Deputy Joe Higgins, my fellow socialist colleague, is not allowed to hear the answer to a question that I can answer. He is being heckled by Deputies Cowley, Kenny and Rabbitte. In reply to Deputy Higgins, I was explaining that this system is in interest of patients and will be far better for the management of the service. It is not to make tax breaks for individuals.

Ms Burton

It is entirely to do with tax breaks.

The Taoiseach

It will be a far more efficient system. The health service will work far better if we can implement reform.

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