Coonan Under Pressure Over Hospital Beds Commitment

North Tipperary Deputy Noel Coonan is under severe political pressure this week after it emerged that an announcement he made in relation to beds re-opening in the Community Hospital of the Assumption in Thurles, will not be happening.

North Tipperary Deputy Noel Coonan is under severe political pressure this week after it emerged that an announcement he made in relation to beds re-opening in the Community Hospital of the Assumption in Thurles, will not be happening.

Furthermore, it is our information that Health Minister James Reilly has cut Deputy Coonan adrift and is not prepared to back him.

Deputy Noel Coonan stated at a public meeting in The Tipperary Institute that a “substantial number of beds” will be re-opened within three weeks -it was expected that 8-10 respite beds would be brought back into operation, he said. And, he cited the Chief Executive Officer of the HSE Mr Tony O’Brien, and the Secretary General of the Department of Health, Mr Ambrose McLoughlin as the people who informed him that the beds would be re-opened. Having been contacted by The Tipperary Star this week, press officers for both failed to respond to our queries.

The announcement, though welcomed broadly at the meeting, was treated with much scepticism by the huge attendance who had made their way to The Tipperary Institute to vent their anger at the broken promises of Health Minister James Reilly who had pledged to re-open the 27 lost beds by January of this year - he then claimed to have no recollection of the commitment. That scepticism was heightened following a revelation from Deputy Michael Lowry that he had been informed by the HSE that afternoon that there were no prospects of the beds being re-opened.

However, it has emerged this week that an allocation of E275,000 from the Special Delivery Unit in the Department specifically sought for intermediary bed care has been sanctioned. But, this money would not be sufficient to open up 8-10 beds and must be used up before the end of December 2012. There has been no relaxing of the recruitment moritorium in the health service and the agency nurse embargo is also still in place.

Deputy Coonan said in a statement this week, “This reassurance comes after intense lobbying of Minister James Reilly, CEO of the HSE and the Secretary General of the Department of Health. Funding of E275,000 has been provided for this year under the Intermediate Care Plan which is delivered by the Special Delivery Unit (SDU). The public are rightly concerned that a state of the art facility is lying idle in Thurles and it is my job to make sure that those serious concerns are heard by people in authority who can implement decisions. I have fulfilled this duty and now we have received funding to reopen the beds. The final step is a determination by HSE management to reopen these beds without any undue delay and a joint effort from all public representatives to adopt a positive ‘is feidir linn’ approach to reopening beds.”

Minister Alan Kelly, who was unable to attend the public meeting but sent a letter of apology, told The Tipperary Star that this €275,000 can be used by the hospital in whatever way it sees fit and there is a suggestion that block booking of private nursing home beds may be on the cards in order to provide State funded respite for patients - ther eis no suggestion of beds re-opening in the hospital. However, Minister Kelly has described as “very significant” the fact that the Community Hospital of the Assumption has been included in the allocations as it is recognition of the need and the possibility of being in the stream for further funding.

“What I was most happy about is the fact that the Hospital of the Assumption and North Tipperary was chosen in the first place and this should augur well for similar types of funding from and Intermediary Care Funding in future.

I was so concerned about managing peoples expectations that I phoned Minister James Reilly and following a conversation with him, he agreed to come down to Tipperary to meet me. He did that in Nenagh on Friday and he confirmed that the application was successful. Commitments in relation to volume of beds and timelines are not something that should be gotten into and the Minister did not expect that they were. Subsequent to that and with further conversations with Minister Kathleen Lynch and others, it has been confirmed that an application has been made to the HSE to use this funding to maximise the amount of respite and rehab provision that can be provided in North Tipperary in the coming months,” said Minister Kelly who confirmed on Tuesday morning that it has been agreed that the funding can be used as the hospital sees fit. Minister Kelly met with the CEO of the HSE in his office on Tuesday, we understand.

In the aftermath of the public meeting Deputy Michael Lowry sought clarification from senior executives in the HSE to establish what, if any, significance this allocation has for the bed compliment and staffing levels in the Community Hospital. He was advised that there is no guarantee of bed openings, because of on-going staff recruitment constraints. Furthermore this money must be spent in this current year. If it is not spent it cannot be carried forward to the next year. The HSE were not in a position to give any commitment regarding the re-opening of further beds in 2013, he said.

“The confusion and doubt is totally unsatisfactory. While the muddling continues, patients in need of respite care and other services are left in limbo without access to proper care and attention. We cannot continue to have the ludicrous situation where we have beds lying idle while the waiting lists for qualified patients continues to grow alarmingly.”

The packed lecture theatre in the TI showed the level of support for the Community Hospital of the Assumption Action Group which organised the public meeting as a means of re-igniting their challenge to the Minister. And, present to lend their support were visiting TD’s and party health spokespeople Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fail) and Caoimhghin O’Caolain (Sinn Fein), both of whom addressed the gather and promised support also. Deputies Mattie McGrath and Seamus Healy attended from South Tipperary while Deputies Noel Coonan and Michael Lowry were present from North Tipperary. Deputy Tom Hayes was unable to attend but had promised to meet the Action Committee this week instead.

The lengthy meeting, which had many contributions from the floor, came down to the commitment given by Deputy Coonan who came under pressure to explain where his announcement came from. Deputy Coonan had pointed to the commitment of the Government to North Tipperary and how the Dean Maxwell Home in Roscrea and St Conlon’s in Nenagh had both increased bed capacity by five. He also stated that the Community Hospital of the Assumption had increased bed numbers by five, but this was refuted by staff members and others who claimed that the beds were re-opened - without any input from the HSE or the department - through extraordinary efforts and dedication on the part of staff. These five beds had nothing to do with the Government, the meeting heard.

“An additional 6.5 members of staff have been recruited in the hospital as well as a junior doctor and a consultant geriatrician. There were 72 beds in the hospital originally and the Minister and the Government is determined to bring capacity back to that level. I have been reminding the Minister of his promise to Thurles at every available opportunity and he is working towards meeting that promise. He has also committed to a Primary Care Centre in Thurles which is to be welcomed.

“I am delighetd to be able to state here tonight that I have been in contact with the Secretary General of the Department and the Chief Executive Officer of the HSE and there will be a substantial number of beds re-opened in the Hospital of the Assumption within three weeks. I do not know the exact number but there will be a similar number opened early in the New Year again. This is solid, sound progress and it is to be welcomed,” Deputy Coonan said.

The news came as something of a surprise to everyone present because Deputy Lowry had earlier informed the meeting that he had been in contact with the HSE Chief Executive at 4:00pm that day and had been told that they had gone as far as they could go in terms of re-opening beds. “Political efforts have failed and unless there is a public reaction to this and the Oireachtas members from this constituency see that people are prepared to stand up and fight, beds will not be reinstated. We have 486 looking for respite care but only four respite beds available in North Tipperary. It is time that we stood up for the management of the hospital, the staff of the hospital and the people who need and require the services in the hospital,” said Deputy Lowry, who after Deputy Coonan’s announcement added, “I hope Noel Coonan’s source is more reliable than mine.”

Deputy Coonan was challenged to name the individuals who had given him the information - he did so, stating that Ambrose McLoughlin, Secretary General of the Department, and Tony O’Brien, Chief Executive Officer of the HSE had given him the information. However, he did not state who had given him the authority to make the announcement on the night.

Both Deputies Coonan and Lowry had explained how a new Board of the HSE, appointed by the Health Minister had resulted in changes in the structure. Deputy Coonan said that this meant the Minister now had the people in place within the HSE to carry out his wishes and instructions, while Deputy Lowry said that the Minister now had full control of the HSE - “There can be no more fudging of it on the Minister’s part now,” Deput Lowry said.

An issue of a E22m budget in the Minister of Older People, Kathleen Lynch’s department being used in the Hospital of the Assumption, as mentioned by Cllr John Kennedy and put forward by Minister Kelly, was refuted by Deputy Lowry. “I spoke with Kathleen Lynch today about this issue to see if she had a budget available. She did not see any short term or long term solution to the problems in Thurles until such time as the recruitment moritorium is lifted,” Deputy Lowry said.