The HSE should not stifle debate

Published: Anglo Celt; Wednesday, 28th July, 2010 5:00pm

The obstacles caused by the absence of the right of ‘qualified privilege’ at regional health forum meetings was brought into sharp focus at this week’s meeting in Kells. The media has qualified privilege to report on exchanges at meetings of certain bodies such as local authorities and VECs, and previously health boards, but this privilege was not extended to the new regional health forums.

In layman’s terms, the media is protected from defamation or libel actions in certain circumstances. For example, a fair and accurate report of Oireachtas or court proceedings is privileged. That is why we often hear the phrase on the Dáil floor: “I challenge you to repeat that outside the house” – the suggestion is that the statement would not stand up to scrutiny under normal circumstances and could be defamatory.

Qualified privilege, however, affords the media protection “subject to explanation or contradiction”. The publisher will lose the right of privilege if it fails to amend or clarify an erroneous statement.

The lack of qualified privilege for health forum meetings means, however, that elected representatives to the forum can’t speak freely and best represent the interests of their respective areas.

In the case of Virginia councillor Paddy O’Reilly, he was effectively muzzled at the meeting last Monday when he tried to get to the bottom of the number of bed closures at the Virginia Health Care Unit, in terms of how many beds the HSE originally said would be closing versus and how many will actually be closed.

That a democratically elected public representative could be silenced in this way with the threat of legal action is preposterous. How is he supposed to represent the people of the Virginia area when he can’t speak honestly and freely in the public interest?

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly earlier this month at the publication of her annual report, accused the HSE of being riddled with secrecy and acting at all times in self interest. She made the comments after encountering considerable difficulty accessing HSE records while investigating a number of complaints.

“It’s as if the HSE lives in a parallel universe,” she said, pointing out that others, including the Minister for Children and the government itself, had not been able to secure information from the HSE recently in relation to child deaths in care. “So there is something rotten within that system,” she said.

It seems that Ms O’Reilly’s comments may have some basis given that public representatives in Cootehill and the senior citizens committee are having difficulty getting a straight answer from the HSE about plans for the Darley Day Care Centre and whether its services are to be relocated or even continued. Members of Cootehill Town Council at their July monthly meeting accused the HSE of leaving them out of the loop on the issue (see page 4).

And it certainly seems that there is no accountability within the HSE – or at least this has something that has been dramatically diluted since the abolition of the old health boards, which were replaced with the four regional health forums in January 2006.

The forums were intended to allow public representatives liaise with the HSE on important health-related matters and health service provision in their respective areas. It’s clear now that’s not happening effectively or at least in a transparent way.

The government now needs to review how the entire system is working, and to ensure that all matters relating to the delivery of health services in this country are transparent and in the event of any difficulty or complaint, that there is accountability and redress.

The HSE is there to serve the public interest and that needs to be the focus of any review or restructuring.