Health Services

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 206 No. 1

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Senator Marc MacSharry: Information on Marc MacSharry Zoom on Marc MacSharry I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This motion asks the Minister for Health and Children to ensure adequate funds are made available to Sligo General Hospital for the operation of a bus bringing patients for cancer treatment to University College Hospital Galway, UCHG, from the €750,000 fund announced as ring-fenced for such purposes by Professor Tom Keane.

The Minister of State will recall very well the personified anger and the depth of this justified anger and disappointment in the people of Sligo and the north west following the transfer of cancer services to UCHG. I could probably filibuster for a day and a half on the issue. The HSE as a whole, with a centralising approach to plans, pathology and categorisation seems to [70]have a policy, from the perspective of the people who live in Sligo and the north west, of the people moving closer or dying.

Notwithstanding this, we are where we are and there is an intolerable position where a bus brings patients for treatment to University College Hospital in Galway each day. A new bus is to be delivered very shortly and from that, given budget cutbacks enforced on the hospital, the hospital and friends of the hospital who will purchase the bus must secure operating costs for the vehicle on an ongoing basis in the region of €70,000. The budgetary constraints mean the hospital must seek the funds from third party sources.

The hospital applied to the Irish Cancer Society for funding as it is the group administering the €750,000 fund which Professor Tom Keane indicated would be available for travel and transport services for patients travelling to cancer treatment in University College Hospital in Galway. On doing so, Ms Mairead Lyons on behalf of the Irish Cancer Society informed the Friends of Sligo General Hospital that it could not fund the programme without the permission of the national cancer control programme. This was duly sought and declined in writing last week by Dr. Mary Hynes of the programme on the basis that it was not part of what is known as the travel to care scheme, whereby people make their own way to treatment and claim back money, or the care to drive programme. That programme is idealistic, however beneficial it might be in its intentions, and is being rolled out for St. Vincent’s Hospital, although not throughout the country. Volunteers are expected to come forward to drive people to hospital.

If we have a fund of €750,000 and a bus in place that can bring people for treatment, notwithstanding the discomfort and injustice being perpetrated on the people of the north west, why are we trying to roll out new schemes with the money? That money is required for the operation of the existing bus. The argument from the Department is that the bus always brought people for radiotherapy. Since the transfer of other cancer services, people are going to UCHG to use that facility for many cancer related treatments other than radiotherapy. Rather than being foolish about this we should use our common sense and prioritise. If there is no money to run the bus, the €750,000 should be used to run the bus.

On a temporary basis and at an absolute minimum I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure the €750,000 as announced by Professor Tom Keane and administered on behalf of the HSE and others by the Irish Cancer Society is made available to groups such as the Friends of Sligo General Hospital to try to minimise the stress and pain on those people who must travel to Galway. It should be made available for that purpose. I appeal that this be done immediately pending permanent budgetary arrangements. The money must be made available to people.

I cannot overestimate how annoyed the people of the north west are because of how they have been treated in the transfer of all these services. To say to them under the auspices of a letter from Dr. Mary Hynes that they would get no funding to help the running of the bus is nothing short of a urination on the people of the area in which I live. I appeal to the Minister of State to take the only common sense approach that is justified by instructing the HSE and national cancer control programme to tell the Irish Cancer Society to administer this fund thoughtfully to ensure groups such as the Friends of Sligo General Hospital have adequate funding for the running of the bus.

Deputy Barry Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews Zoom on Barry Andrews I welcome the opportunity to set out the position on funding support for patients from the Sligo area travelling for cancer treatment. The need for patients to travel arises partly as a result of the consolidation of cancer services that has taken place in the past two years. It is also the case that some cancer services, in particular radiotherapy, have always been located in a small number of hospitals. The university hospital in Galway and Limerick [71]Regional Hospital have been, since 2005, the hospitals providing radiotherapy services in the HSE western region.

The consolidation of cancer services in the past two years has been undertaken by the national cancer control programme in line with the recommendations in the 2006 national cancer control strategy. The goals of the programme are better cancer prevention, detection and survival through a national service based on international evidence and best practice. Achieving these goals has required the realignment of cancer services to move from a fragmented system of care to one consistent with international best practice in cancer control. Eight hospitals in Ireland were designated by the HSE as cancer centres in line with the recommendations of the 2006 strategy. The designation of cancer centres aims to ensure patients receive the highest quality standards of care while at the same time allowing local access to services where appropriate. This means diagnosis and treatment planning being managed by multidisciplinary teams based at the cancer centres, with treatment other than surgery, such as chemotherapy, delivered in local hospitals.

The HSE has designated University College Hospital Galway and the Mid-Western Regional Hospital as the two cancer centres in the managed cancer control network for the HSE western region, which includes Sligo. I recognise, as does the national cancer control programme, that the consolidation of cancer services in the eight centres means that patients may need to travel longer distances than heretofore to access some cancer services. For patients in Sligo, this applies particularly to breast cancer diagnosis and surgery which are now located at Galway. Radiotherapy services for Sligo patients, on the other hand, continue to be located at Galway as has been the case since 2005. Outpatient radiation oncology clinics continue to be delivered at Sligo, as does medical oncology. A second medical oncologist is being appointed on a permanent basis at Sligo to support this service.

In 2008, the Friends of Sligo Hospital applied for a lottery grant for the purchase of a bus and €170,000 was provided in September 2008. I understand the bus has now been purchased and will replace an existing bus which had been in operation for Sligo patients for some time. I am advised that the Friends of Sligo Hospital has sought funds from the national cancer control programme for the running costs of the bus.

I assume the €750,000 fund about which Senator MacSharry spoke refers to the Travel2Care scheme. The scheme is funded by the national cancer control programme and administered by the Irish Cancer Society on its behalf. It is being implemented on a phased basis in line with the transfer of cancer services to the designated centres and the approved satellite centre where this transfer of services has caused financial hardship. The scheme provides some financial help towards the costs of public transport such as trains or buses, private transport costs or petrol and parking.

The Government is committed to making the full range of cancer services available and accessible to cancer patients throughout Ireland in accordance with best international standards. The provision of funding by the national cancer control programme under the Travel2Care scheme recognises the impact on patients of travelling for services. The provision of lottery funding to the Friends of Sligo Hospital is a further step in helping to alleviate the impact for patients of travel for some services.

The HSE is reviewing its policy on eligibility for non-ambulance based patient transport services in order that a consistent policy is adopted nationally for these services. The Minister is requesting as a matter of urgency that the issue of funding of the bus from Sligo to University College Hospital Galway be resolved in the context of this policy review.

[72]Senator Marc MacSharry: Information on Marc MacSharry Zoom on Marc MacSharry The Minister of State referred to various improvements that have been made. The issue of follow-up mammography at Sligo General Hospital has not been addressed. I ask that action be taken in this regard.

The Minister of State indicated the Minister is requesting as a matter of urgency that the issue of funding for the bus from Sligo to University College Hospital Galway be resolved in the context of this policy review. The issue could not be more urgent. While the decision to provide lottery funding to help finance the purchase of a bus is welcome, the decision not to help fund the costs of running of the bus in light of budgetary constraints when €750,000 is available through the Travel2Care and care to drive schemes is ridiculous in the extreme. It is akin to providing a linear accelerator and asking members of the public to operate it themselves without a radiation specialist.

I appreciate the Minister of State provided a set-piece response. I ask him to convey my concerns to the Minister. I hope the Minister’s request concerning the funding for a bus from Sligo to Galway will be dealt with in a matter of hours or days rather than in the turnaround time we have come to expect from the Health Service Executive.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 December 2010.


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