Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2005

12:00 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley, for coming to the House. However, I cannot thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, for the appalling situation at Mullingar hospital where, in spite of promises, work has failed to be completed under phase 2B. The people of the area seek assurance that the development of Mullingar hospital will go ahead despite the Hanly report and the inaction of the Department.

The Government ring-fenced €57 million for the development. The shell opened in 1997. The control plan was signed off by the Midland Health Board in 2002 and the development plan went to the Department in 2003. Eight years later the people of the midlands are still waiting for this facility to be opened as promised. It has been promised in the run-up to two general elections but very little has happened since. The building needs to be finished, equipped and staffed. It is questionable if this will happen.

I have heard from a reliable source that it is planned to string the people of Longford and Westmeath along until after the next general election and that the plug will then be pulled on the plan for the hospital. That is in the public domain in the area. It is a strong possibility given the history of this development. No timetable has been announced for the completion of phase 2B of Mullingar hospital. The time has come, if the Minister of State will excuse me for saying it, to put up or shut up on the issue. Empty words will not scotch rumours of the kind to which I referred. At this stage the only proof of the Minister's intentions will be action. We have had enough words and empty promises. On behalf of the people of the midlands I ask the Minister to honour the promises in regard to phase 2B of Mullingar hospital.

The hospital's annual budget is not rising at the same rate as two other hospitals in the former Midland Health Board region, those in Tullamore and Portlaoise. Staff numbers in Mullingar hospital are falling. Mullingar hospital is the only hospital to consistently receive less funding year-on-year. In 2000 Mullingar hospital's percentage of the overall budget was 34.9% while in 2004 this was reduced to 32.3%. An analysis of the figures for the past five years gives an alarming picture of the downgrading of the hospital. Tullamore hospital has received an increase of 76% and Portlaoise hospital has received an increase of 87%. Mullingar hospital has fallen behind with an increase of a mere 59% over the five-year period from 2000 to 2004.

The writing appears to be on the wall for the hospital. As regards staffing numbers, in 2001 there were 753 full-time employees, while the number had dropped to 664 in 2004, a decline of almost 10%. Patient numbers, by and large, have increased since 1997, with a total of 52,569 being treated last year. Interestingly, the reduction in staff numbers has come about since 2002 when the local Fianna Fáil representatives were elected.

The reality is that Mullingar hospital is not being maintained at the same levels as its sister hospitals in Tullamore and Portlaoise and questions must be asked. Why is the special care baby unit, which was built three and a half years ago, lying empty? Why has the Health Service Executive failed to provide funding to staff the unit? Why has the funding been denied to complete the required staffing levels? The HSE has constantly refused funding for the extra staff needed to open this special care baby unit. A number of nurses who took up employment there on the assurance that the unit would be opened in the near future, have left in frustration. The population of the Mullingar catchment area is growing rapidly and this is leading to increased demand on already overstretched resources at the hospital. However, no help is forthcoming and there is no satisfactory outcome on the horizon for the people of the area.

Will the new wing at Mullingar hospital be completed before the general election, or is it the Government's plan to axe it, if re-elected? I want a straight answer to this question as well as the commitment that phase 2B, promised before the last general election, will be delivered before the next one. I am inviting the Minister of State to clarify the situation. If this does not happen, I assure the Minister of State that I, as a public representative from the area, will be bringing thousands of people onto the streets of both Mullingar and Longford to protest at the inaction of this Government on the issue.

Tim O'Malley (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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I am taking the Adjournment debate on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I thank Senator Bannon for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to give the House an update on the project.

The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, HSE, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the HSE has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services, including its capital programme. Phase 2B of the Midland Regional Hospital is being progressed in this context.

The necessary funds to progress phase 2B form part of the funding provided to the HSE in the capital envelope of the capital investment framework 2005-09. The hospital is being redeveloped in phases. Phase 1 was completed in 1989 and phase 2A in 1997, at a cost of €13 million. Phase 2A included "shelled out" accommodation — external walls, floors and roof — for completion in phase 2B, the final phase of the current redevelopment programme, which is at the design stage. The "shelled out" accommodation is on four floors over the existing radiology department and a single floor over the entrance concourse. It was provided for future ward accommodation and an operating department. The accommodation was provided as part of the phase 2A contract as a long-term value for money construction solution which will minimise disruption to existing functioning accommodation during the phase 2B construction works contract.

The Department of Health and Children approved the Midland Health Board's stage 2 development control plan, together with stage 3 sketch design cost plan for phase 2B in September 2004. It is anticipated that stage 3 will be completed in the near future. Phase 2B includes the fit-out of the "shelled out" accommodation together with additional accommodation, to provide the following: pathology and operating departments; general medical and surgical wards; medicine for the elderly-rehabilitation unit; day services, including surgery; administration and staff accommodation; acute psychiatric unit; child and adolescent psychiatric unit; occupational therapy department; catering and educational facilities; and a new entrance concourse.

The HSE service plan for 2005 was recently approved by the Tánaiste and, as required by relevant legislation, laid before the House of the Oireachtas. The detailed capital funding programme for 2005 is currently being finalised in the context of the capital investment framework 2005-09. This process also requires that issues relating to non-capital costs and staffing implications be addressed by the HSE prior to commencing new construction on individual projects.

When the capital investment framework is finalised, the HSE will then be in a position to progress its capital programme for this year. This process involves making provision for commitments, carrying forward from 2004 and initiating new contractual commitments for individual projects, in line with overall funding resources available for this year and beyond. The Tánaiste is aware that the procurement priority for phase 2B has always been the fit-out of the "shelled out" ward accommodation, as the first stage, to provide additional beds to enhance the delivery of clinical services by the hospital.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State has given no timescale. I have asked for a timescale so that this project may be delivered to the people of Longford-Westmeath before the next general election. I wish the Tánaiste would come back and be honest with the people and tell them the truth on this particular issue. We want the truth now. It is a scandal that the shell has been in existence for more than nine years without being fitted out. There is also the matter of the reduction in services at the hospital, for which the people of Longford-Westmeath will not stand any longer. I want to convey that message to the Tánaiste. As I said before, I will bring the people onto the streets on this issue because it concerns every single family, parish and townland in Longford and Westmeath. I assure the House we will take action on this if the Minister does not.