Reilly’s time in Health was tough but the difficulties were of his own making
From the Irish Independent on 02/03/2016
James Reilly reckons the Government will be “remembered for turning the country around”. Speaking from the count centre on Sunday after losing his seat in the Dublin Fingal constituency, the former Health Minister used a medical metaphor to assess Fine Gael and Labour’s time in government: “The operation was a success, but the patient is still in a lot of pain.”
Reilly went on to explain the reason for his party’s and his own drubbing in the election – that Fine Gael did not get its message across and failed to make an emotional connection with the people.
What Reilly does not realise is that the party did not fail to get its message across, quite simply, it had the wrong message. The Government’s regressive fiscal, economic and social policies failed individuals and communities who bore the brunt of the crisis.
As the election’s most high-profile casualty, Reilly admitted his “time in Health would not have been exactly helpful”. But “the country had no money, and hard decisions had to be made”, some of which were “repugnant”.
Reilly’s time in Health was tough. But much of the difficulty was his and his Government’s own creation. His early days in Health were mired by his political interference in the selection of primary care centres, including one in his own constituency.
Fine Gael adopted the flawed flagship health policy of universal health insurance in the run-up to the 2011 election. Reilly was its number one sponsor as Fine Gael health spokesman between 2007 and 2011 and then as Health Minister from 2011 to 2014.
Inexplicably, Fine Gael entered government without a detailed plan as to exactly how universal health insurance was to be realised. Its proposal was based on the Dutch model of compulsory insurance delivered through competing private health insurance companies, which even by 2011 was proving to be overly expensive in Holland.
Fine Gael promised those with existing health insurance coverage would not have to pay more, yet in the first few years of government, health insurance costs rocketed.
It took three-and-a-half years to publish a White Paper on Universal Health Insurance. And it was only when Reilly was replaced by Leo Varadkar as Health Minister, and the eventual publication of ESRI costings of the health insurance model last autumn, did Varadkar finally admit the proposal was neither feasible nor affordable.
Other key health promises were also broken. Soon after taking up the Health ministry, Reilly promised there would never again be 569 people on trolleys. Yet, high trolley numbers persist. This week, there were 544 people on trolleys.
Prior to the 2011 election, Reilly pledged not to shut the emergency department in Roscommon Hospital; nevertheless, it was closed by July 2011.
Similarly, promises on reducing waiting lists were broken. There were some improvements in waiting times in 2012 and 2013, but these were not sustainable. There are now more people waiting too long for outpatient appointments and hospital treatments than when Fine Gael took up office, with the exception of outpatient appointments over one year.
In opposition, Reilly lambasted the government for introducing prescription charges for medical card holders. Yet under his stewardship, those same charges increased five-fold.
And it was cuts to the numbers of people with discretionary medical cards where the Government parties inflicted most damage on themselves. Here, Reilly’s inexperience and lack of political nous meant he was shafted by his Cabinet colleagues, especially the Labour ones (Howlin, Burton and Quinn) as education and social welfare got money in the first three Budgets that should have gone to health.
On Sunday, Reilly spoke about the irony of this – that while he and Fine Gael have suffered in the election as a result of their own poor Budget choices – ultimately the Labour Party suffered more, evident in its loss of 31 seats.
This anger, expressed by the people with the Government parties, was palpable in the 2014 local and European elections, yet the Government blustered on, ignoring the reality for most Irish citizens.
There are lessons to be learnt from Reilly’s very public demise – from poll-topping, right-hand man to the Taoiseach, deputy leader of the largest party, who was given the senior Ministry in Health which he so desperately wanted in 2011, only to be demoted to the Department of Children in summer 2014 and barely featured in the 2016 General Election campaign.
Last Sunday, Reilly lost the last seat in his constituency to first-time Sinn Féin candidate Louise O’Reilly.
Poignantly, Sinn Féin’s health policy is to deliver what Reilly and Fine Gael promised in 2011 but spectacularly failed to realise – a universal, single-tiered health service where access is based solely on medical need, not ability to pay.
James Reilly and his Coalition colleagues were punished by the electorate for years of austerity which hit hardest on those who could least afford it and for their failure to deliver on key promises, including those in health.
Now is the time for accountable government, which respects, listens to and delivers for the savvy electorate.
A government that realises promises that actually turn the country around.