Polite, presentable and eloquent… three words that could easily sum up Stephen Donnelly.
And our health secretary brought those three qualities to a meeting the other day of his parliamentary party Fianna Fáil, where his TDs and senators gather to hear the latest news from the seat of government and brainstorm strategies.
Mr. Donnelly was called in to provide an update on his department’s latest initiatives and progress and to provide an overview of where our health care system is heading.
Well, Hunky Dory isn’t the word for her reported remarks.
The Department of Health is working tirelessly to meet all its challenges and delivering a healthcare system that will be the envy of the world – with Mr Donnelly working tirelessly at the helm – was the bulk of his comments.
Apparently, a few Fianna Fáil apparatchiks nearly blushed as our health service’s performance has been strained as it struggles to recover from two years of the pandemic.
Polite, presentable and eloquent…
But let me tell you, those weren’t the three words I would have chosen to describe our Minister of Health that very day, following a phone call I received regarding the long wait for my son for dental care in the public system.
Pitiful, underachieving and rather delusional – if Mr Donnelly truly believes he is doing a good job as a minister as he blows his own trumpet with fanfare to his party colleagues.
As for three words to describe our healthcare system: How about failing, or chaotic, or overloaded? And that’s saying it politely.
On the day Mr. Donnelly was talking about his brilliant work, I received a phone call in the long saga of my son’s dental problem. It was in the fall of 2019 when he entered the system and joined a queue for an assessment.
The phone call was to inform me that he should, all being well, be given an appointment for his evaluation in the summer – nearly three years after he enrolled.
But wait, that was just the assessment. What was, I tentatively asked, the waiting time for the actual orthodontic treatment that might be deemed necessary?
Ah, well, it could take up to five more years…
Yes, five years, the length of a Dáil term, ironically.
This means that there is an eight-year queue for a child to receive dental care in the public health system – by which time many of those children will be adults.
For a young person who may need a brace, for example, and who is at a self-aware age, this is a shameful delay.
My son is trapped in a vicious circle with thousands of others in the Cork/Kerry area alone, and although Covid has clearly played a part in these waiting times he cannot be blamed entirely for the faults.
We all know about the long delays and waits, the endless queues, the unwritten nods trying to force everyone into the private system where they pay through their nose, have been with us for years, even decades.
But the feeling that the lines are getting longer, that nothing is being done about it, and that our politicians and health officials just won’t or can’t fix it, is only growing day by day. in days.
The current health secretary may have inherited this mess, and he can appoint a hundred or a thousand bureaucrats whom he pays to fix these problems, but the blame stops with him.
Just before the pandemic, more than 3,500 children and teenagers were on waiting lists for orthodontic assessments and treatment in Cork and Kerry, including one patient who had waited more than four years.
Well, now there’s at least one in my house facing double the wait! The national orthodontic waiting list for children at the end of last year stood at more than 13,000.
The figures released in January 2020 were obtained from the HSE by Cork TD and Fianna Fáil Minister Michael McGrath – just before the last election – who described them as “appallingly high” and “particularly worrying”.
I wonder what he thinks of the current waiting list and whether he asked Mr Donnelly about it at this cozy Fianna Fáil parliamentary meeting? Maybe he didn’t want to stop the brilliant health minister as he talked about his accomplishments?
A few days after my phone call, I learned of another change in the management structure of the HSE, as Mr Donnelly received Cabinet approval for his plan to introduce Regional Health Areas (RHAs) .
These are designed “to align hospital and community health services, with a defined population and their individual local needs”, we are told.
Will it help solve long waiting lists and overcrowded hospitals? Sounds more like the rearranged deckchairs on the Titanic to me.
All we seem to hear about are structural management changes that don’t address the core problem for people and patients: huge wait times.
In a past life, Mr. Donnelly was a management consultant and he still gives off that aura of believing that there is no problem that can’t be solved by a change in management structure, with a fancy new name, delivered by a man in a brilliant jumpsuit. I look forward to the six-figure fees we taxpayers will have to shell out for the fancy new logos of these six RHAs…
We have heard all of this before. Centralize, then regionalize, centralize it… and, oh, is there something to be said for further regionalization.
The problem with our health care system is not the lack of funds. The whole system is loaded with handlers – none of them will ever reduce our growing queues by getting their hands dirty.
Two years ago there were only two consultant orthodontists to cover all of Cork and Kerry, and Mr McGrath complained: “We need more staff to keep up with the demand.
Did we get those extra employees, Mr. McGrath and Mr. Donnelly? Or will these shiny new RHAs allow us to get them? Because otherwise the queues will only get longer.
In the past, the HSE has highlighted the fact that it has a priority waiting list for orthodontic treatments, including those with a cleft palate; a functional waiting list; and a routine fixed waiting list. Under the current circumstances, I imagine the pressure on all of these is only getting worse.
Of course, dental care is only one part of our creaking healthcare system. As of Wednesday, there were 568 patients waiting for beds in hospitals across the country, according to INMO; 466 were waiting in the emergency room and 102 elsewhere in the hospital.
If Mr. Donnelly is reading this, he might want to take some common sense advice down the street: the problem of wait times and queues will not be solved by extra teleprinters, office staff or bureaucrats. Obviously, it will only be solved by hiring many more people who can do the necessary assessments and work.