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Fantasy vs reality

Despite loud protestation about being different from the Government coalition, a recent appearance on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live showed a party at odds with itself. It must be noted, however, FF is deeply unhappy with the programme, and according to reports is considering complaining to the broadcasting authority over alleged bias.

It wasn’t all bad news, though.

Last week, the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ were given a chance to nail their colours to the mast with their long-awaited policy on health, Putting Patients and Services First.

One of the measures outlined in the document is a ‘sugar tax’ of 20 per cent on sweetened drinks to help fight obesity. To anyone concerned about childhood and adult obesity, this only makes sense.

For GPs, it promises to put primary care at the heart of the health service and recognises that times are tough for general practitioners, with around one-in-12 practices at risk of closure. In the areas where self-employed GPs are unavailable or unwilling to set up, GPs will be taken on as salaried employees of the HSE. However, given that Fianna Fáil too supports the controversial introduction of free GP care for the under-sixes, doctors are sure to be wary.

Elsewhere, the party commits to creating 200 new consultant posts over a five-year period. These posts are particularly with a view to tackling the emergency department crisis. Inappropriate tasks will be transferred from NCHDs to allied health professionals. Public health doctors, forgotten by successive Governments, will be put on “an equal footing with their other medical colleagues”.

All of these sound fine, if a little like wishful thinking (See Fine Gael’s FairCare for more).

However, the wheels come unstuck when they started cooing over the National Treatment Purchase Fund, the Fianna Fáil/PD 2002 ‘silver bullet’ for waiting lists. While the NTPF was loved by patients, did it represent a sustainable, cost-effective solution? No. Over a 10-year period, its costs rose and rose, reaching more than half a billion euro in 2010. It enshrined lack of resources and inefficiency within the public health service, while enriching the private one. Respected health economists, such as Prof Charles Normand of TCD, have in the past told this newspaper that measures of this nature are, or at the least should be considered, stop-gap.

Knowing all this, it is hard to take the party’s line that “any extra money that becomes available should be used in developing and maintaining services to meet the public demands”.

As the election approaches, every party will have to set out its policies for health. But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that election promises and health provision reality rarely mix.

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