“It’s not a life, it’s an existence,” said thirty-seven year old Cork woman, Patricia Connolly, speaking after the screening last week of RTE’s shocking programme, ‘Living on the List.’ It told the harrowing story of the hell that people, including children, are experiencing as they languish on the public hospital waiting list which, at over 632,000, is the highest ever. There is nothing quite as debilitating as physical pain. Patricia’s pain is “like having a heavy period every day of the week.” It’s relentless. You could see the pain in her face. She said her pain feels like her insides are being scraped with broken glass.
There was a time in her twenties when Patricia had private health insurance and was referred to a gynaecologist who dealt with her condition. But now, she is mired in the chaos of the public health system which is failing miserably to alleviate human suffering. On occasional nights out, Patricia has to carry incontinence towels, pain killers and a hot water bottle for her stomach. And we think we live in a civilised country that cherishes everyone equally? Why should anyone have to exist like this? And why did it take RTE to drive home the fact that the health system is systemically failing people? Some are driven to going to the credit union to take out loans to see a specialist. In other words, ill people are willing to get into serious debt because their health and well-being is being ignored. It’s hard to fathom that there is a staggering 100,000 employees in the HSE. As someone said on the radio last week, our health system has management deficit disorder.
You don’t often see hard-nosed journalists on television holding the hand of a distressed interviewee. But talking to the traumatised mother of a twelve-year old girl, suffering from scoliosis (curvature of the spine), Miriam O’Callaghan reached out and squeezed the hand of the woman, when she cried as she described her daughter’s spine which is 60 degrees twisted. This mother said she didn’t believe that anything will happen to improve the prospects of her daughter. But such was the level of outrage – with the health minister admitting to being embarrassed about the system he presides over – that the new theatre to treat scoliosis at Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin will be functioning in April. Let’s see if it happens. It’s probably too late to undo the damage of scoliosis in some severe cases. In ‘Living on the List’ a young girl was shown with an abscess on her back – the result of rods fitted to straighten her spine, bursting through her skin. It was a sorry and blood-ridden ugly sight - one that Simon Harris should be utterly ashamed of. It seems it takes extreme cases like this to be publicised before action is taken.
Just what is wrong with the public health system? Despite an increase of a third in the population since the severe cutbacks in the 1980s and early 1990s when thousands of hospital beds were closed, the capacity has not been built back up again. (We also have a significant increase in the over-65s who typically, require treatment and sometimes hospitalisation.) OECD figures show that we have 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 of the population, compared with an OECD average of 4.8. We also have fewer doctors per 1,000 of the population – 2.7 compared with an OECD average of 3.3. We experienced significant public health expenditure cutbacks during the recent recession.
I know people who refuse to pay for private health insurance on ideological grounds, arguing that there shouldn’t be a two-tier system. But unfortunately, the reality means that if you can afford insurance, you should go for it. But of course, it’s expensive. The health insurance companies are aggressive in their efforts to win your custom. After years of being with the VHI, I switched to another company when all my former insurer had to offer me was an increase of about €9 a month.
“Is it just about the money?” a VHI guy asked me recently after contacting me on the last day of the ‘cooling off’ period when I still had time to go back to the insurers. For heaven’s sake! Of course it’s about the money. Insurers raise their premiums every year. They bamboozle you with information that casts them in a better light than the competition. You’re so confused about ‘excess charges’ and the fear of having to shell out if you get a knee job done that you wish you could figure out what the bottom line is. In the end, I rang the Health Insurance Authority for objective advice. The guy on the phone concurred with me. Of course it’s all about the money. Health insurers take note: We’re not complete suckers.