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While he is still in the honeymoon phase of holding the health portfolio, bad publicity of the atrocious hospital waiting lists aside, he is certainly taking a personal interest in a number of pertinent health issues and positioning himself as someone who is open to listening to the views of all relevant stakeholders.
His setting up of the Dáil Committee to create a 10-year, cross-party consensus plan on health is the strongest testament to his open-door approach, but a number of other actions have also shown his willingness to become more actively involved in issues his predecessors were reticent about.
Mere days into being handed the ‘poisoned chalice’, Minister Harris very publicly waded into the ongoing governance row between the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, and St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, regarding the planned new maternity hospital on the St Vincent’s campus. The Minister commented on national radio that he would not allow the building of the hospital to be “jeopardised by rows over governance and fiefdom” and urged the hospitals to “put their egos to one side”.
He quickly appointed the head of the Workplace Relations Commission Mr Kieran Mulvey to be a mediator in the dispute and recently told the Medical Independent (MI) that “progress” was being made and he was “hopeful” that a resolution would be forthcoming soon.
Meanwhile, on foot of the latest hospital waiting list data, which shows that over half a million people are waiting for inpatient or outpatient treatment, Minister Harris launched a five-point plan earlier this month in an attempt to deal with the longest waiters in particular. The plan received a cool response and was criticised for being inadequate and unambitious but he strongly defended it in comments to MI. “I am somewhat surprised by some of the response of some of the commentariat in relation to it… ” he said, insisting that it was appropriate to tackle the longest waiters first, as well as the endoscopy backlog.
“There is a lot to do and there is no magic wand, but it is a step in the right direction… the budget will be the next step.”
And, in a move that was strongly welcomed by many, last week the Minister confirmed that the NAGP would be invited to participate in the ongoing new GP contract negotiations.
“I think it is absolutely essential that we have that new contract negotiated and I want to see the NAGP as a part of that… what I am doing is saying very clearly that when we get down to negotiating the GP contract, which I expect to happen by the end of the year, that the NAGP need to be in the room,” he said.
The NAGP claims to now represent 1,600 GPs, a very significant proportion of the GP population, and its members understandably felt unfairly excluded from the contract talks that occurred solely with the IMO under the previous Minister’s watch.
It fought a hard battle to be invited to the table and Minister Harris spoke positively about previously engaging with the NAGP and added: “I think that it is important to have everyone in the room to begin with and the idea that you would have one group of GPs that you wouldn’t talk to or engage with is skewed.”
The new Minister realises he needs the buy-in and support of the whole GP community if he is to get a new GP contract over the line — in a time when GPs are under enormous pressure due to a succession of FEMPI cuts, the demands of the under-sixes contract and the escalating manpower crisis.
His inclusive approach is to be welcomed, though time will tell if it delivers the results he hopes for.