Budget allocation to health ‘mind boggling’, says Mary Lou McDonald

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (Brian Lawless/PA)
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (Brian Lawless/PA) Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (Brian Lawless/PA)

The budget allocation to health services in Ireland is “mind boggling” and will have “disastrous” consequences for patients, Mary Lou McDonald has warned.

The Sinn Fein leader told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the Government had “thrown in the towel on health”.

In robust exchanges during Leaders’ Questions in the Dail, Mr Varadkar rejected Ms McDonald’s claims as “characteristically misleading” and said spending on health in Ireland would reach record levels in 2024.

The Department of Health had bid for an additional two billion euro to maintain existing levels of service (ELS) into 2024, but only received 700 million euro in ELS funding in a total budget allocation of 22.5 billion euro, meaning it is facing a shortfall of 1.3 billion euro for next year.

Taoiseach attends The Mobius opening
Taoiseach attends The Mobius opening Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rejected Ms McDonald’s claims (Brian Lawless/PA)

It is already facing a 1.5 billion euro overspend in the current year.

The final budgetary picture will only become clear when ministers agree a supplementary allocation in the coming weeks to release money needed to address the 2023 shortfall. That exercise may then see further funding committed to the 2024 baseline.

Ms McDonald claimed the Government had chosen, with “eyes wide open”, to “blow a massive 1.3 billion euro hole” in health services.

“I would describe your decision as mind boggling Taoiseach,” she told Mr Varadkar.

“Incredibly, at a time of record hospital overcrowding, your budget doesn’t provide one additional red cent to fund even one additional hospital bed.

“And perhaps the most shocking thing is what your decision means for major clinical programmes and national health strategy.”

She added: “Your decision will have a real impact on families who face some of the biggest challenges of their lives, families that need Government to fund major improvement in the health service. But, instead, you choose to make things even worse.”

HSE boss Bernard Gloster has announced a recruitment freeze on some healthcare roles for the rest of this year. He said this was because the HSE is on course to meet or exceed the number of roles it has funding for in 2023.

Mr Gloster has said 2,200 additional roles will be created next year.

Ms McDonald said the recruitment “embargo” would have “very real consequences”.

“Make no mistake Taoiseach, you make this choice in full knowledge of the consequences, guaranteeing that the crisis in our health service will continue,” she said.

“Chronic waiting lists will continue, overcrowding will continue and people see very clearly now a Government that has thrown in the towel on health.”

The Sinn Fein president pressed Mr Varadkar to say which minister was responsible for the decision, suggesting finance minister Michael McGrath or public expenditure minister Paschal Donohoe.

“I don’t believe for a second that minister Donnelly (health minister Stephen Donnelly) came up with the bright idea to underfund the HSE to the tune of 1.3 billion euro. I have my criticisms of the minister, but I don’t believe he did anything as reckless as that,” she added.

Mr Varadkar said the budget allocations were a collective Government decision.

He said every cabinet minister, including himself, had asked for more money than they were ultimately given.

“That’s the reality of putting a budget together,” he said.

The Taoiseach said health had received its “biggest ever budget”.

“That’s more than 4,000 euros for every man, woman and child in the state going to the HSE. It’s a considerable amount of money,” he said.

“When I was minister for health, not all that long ago, the budget for health was 14 or 15 billion euros.

“An increase in any one year of 500 million euros would have been something I would have given my left hand for, quite frankly.

“Since then, we’ve seen the health budget increase by somewhere between 60 and 70%.

“Yes, our population has grown. Yes, it’s got older.

“Yes, there is medical inflation, but not to that extent, these are real increases, and they have made a real difference.

“By the way, our life expectancy is now one of the best in the entire world.”

He added: “The health budget is always a challenge and that’s not something that’s unique to Ireland by any means.

“Health services all over the world struggle to come in on budget, and in Ireland that’s no different.

“It’s always been a challenge.

“No matter how much is allocated, there will always be calls for more. And whether the increase on an annual basis is a big one or a small one, there will almost always be a requirement for a supplementary – and 2023 and 2024 isn’t going to be any different.”

Mr Varadkar denied there was a recruitment embargo as he pointed to the 2,000-plus new roles that would be filled in 2024.