Cervical Screen Scandal: The Rot At The Heart Of The Hse


In 2017, Ashling Merriman  was suspended from her job in Naas General Hospital for two months because she had put up a post of her own Facebook page questioning resources being used for a ‘sanctuary garden’

Contrast this to the treatment of Tony O Brien, the Director General of the HSE.

He says he did not know about the Vicky Phelan High Court case until a few weeks beforehand.

He says he also knew nothing about a similar case that occurred four years previously when the HSE was named as a co-defendant with a private US company after a smear test missed abnormalities. The woman concerned went on to develop cervical cancer.

If O Brien did not know about two major cases, was he not incompetent as a Director General?

Does he not ask relevant questions?

Is he so distant from his Risk Management committee that he hears nothing?

O Brien should be suspended from his post immediately. As Simon Harris has refused to suspend him, he is not fit to be a Minister for Health either.

But heads never roll when it concerns the big boys at the top. Faced with a crisis, they close ranks and kick for touch.

Their techniques have been perfected over time. They first cloud an exposure by framing a public debate around what sort of an inquiry is necessary. The ‘full facts’, we are told, are not yet known and so there is a need scoping inquiries or modules or commissions or tribunals.

The strategy is to side-line the scandal – in this case that women may have died unnecessarily because of faulty tests-  and then dissipate public anger. The inquiries go on for months and years. And to make matters worse, the evidence gathered is normally not used for criminal prosecution.

Behind this elite protection racket, lies a web of power and money.

Shortly before the cervical screening scandal broke, Health Minister Simon Harris signed off on permission to allow O Brien serve as a non-executive director on a US company, Evofem Biosciences.

O’Brien knew that his future was secure in the private sector – and this made it easier to play the role of sacrificial punchbag.

But who secured him his new job? One Thomas Gerard Lynch, the chair of Evofem and the man who had organised a fund-raising dinner for Leo Varadkar to help his campaign to become Fine Gael leader.

Lynch has been a director of a number of pharmaceutical and private hospital companies.  Some may have commercial relations with the HSE,  but Varadkar saw no problem with taking funds from a businessman that had an interest in state contracts.

Or a business man who looked after a director of the HSE who saw nothing and told nothing to his Health Minister.

The plain reality is that the HSE has become a major source of profit for private capitalists.

The original move to privatise cervical cancer screen was initiated by an extreme neoliberal, Mary Harney.  She claimed that it was more ‘cost effective’ for private companies to do the testing.

The initial company that won the contract, Quest, had a record of making more mistakes than other testing agencies. But it did not matter to the advocates of outsourcing.

At the time, the outsourcing was denounced not only by the unions – but by none other than James O Reilly, the Fine Gael opposition health spokesperson.

O Reilly was not opposed to privatisation in itself – only to the fact that an American company was getting all the profits,

Later, the HSE brought in an ‘Irish’ company, Medlab, to do the testing.

But Medlab was a subsidiary of Sonic Healthcare who owned a facility in the US, Clinical Pathologies Laboratories. They simply sent over the smear tests to the US company – the one that gave Vicky Phelan a mistaken test result.

Private companies are driven primarily by profit rather than a genuine concern for women’s health. Fees for medical testing in the US have been cut since 2012 and so they moved to ever more ‘cost effective ways’ of testing. In simple English, they cut corners.

When the scandal broke, Harris tried to cover his tracks by claiming that there would be an audit of the smear test results. But by whom? By the same private companies that made the mistake.

Nothing more aptly sums up the Thatcherite philosophy that has caused seriously damaged womens’ health.

We need to sweep these right wing politicians and bureaucrats from power. We need a  health service that cares for people –not profit.