By Dave Murphy
The cervical cancer scandal which has resulted in at least 209 women being misdiagnosed with the disease, left 18 dead and others terminally ill has rocked the confidence of women in the health service.
Emma Mhic Mhathúna, one of those affected, summed up the tragic effects of the scandal in a Morning Ireland interview saying “I’m dying and I didn’t need to die.” Emma, and the 208 other women who we know have been affected by this scandal have been failed by the state.
Now we have learned that the Scally Inquiry, set up to investigate the scandal, will be delayed in reporting back because state bodies like the HSE, the Department of Health and the State Claims Agency have been slow in handing over documents requested by the inquiry team.
This is the latest form of disrespect shown to these women. For the last number of weeks in the courts, women have been forced to wage legal battles against the state and private laboratory companies to gain access to their own medical files.
It is only because of the bravery of women like Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna that we know about this scandal at all. When Phelan sued one of the private labs over the mis-reading of her tests, she refused to be gagged as part of the settlement of the case and spoke out publically.
Web of silence
It was revealed through memos of meetings between officials from CervicalCheck, the HSE and the Department of Health that they had been aware of the 209 ‘false negatives’ for at least seven months, from late 2015 to mid-2016, before women’s doctors were informed.
In that period, realising this would be a major scandal, they began to put in place a media strategy to deal with the fall-out. The private companies conducting the tests were equally as worried, fearing lawsuits.
Both the current Health Minister, Simon Harris, and former Health Minister, Leo Varadkar, claim that they knew nothing about the scandal. It is hard to believe that they weren’t informed considering that the HSE and Department of Health had gone as far as preparing a media strategy to deal with the fall-out.
Outsourcing and privatisation
In 2008, it was a Fianna Fáil government that decided to outsource the reading of the scans to private laboratories. It was then the Fine Gael/Labour government who maintained the contracts with the companies at the centre of the scandal.
At the time of the outsourcing, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins clearly warned that the pursuit of profit by these private labs would enable the companies to cut corners and put more pressure on lab workers to work quicker. This was emphasised by Vicky Phelan at an Oireachtas Committee when she described getting her original scan back – she said how it was ‘littered’ with cancerous cells but these were missed by the lab, it led her to question how long it had been looked at for or whether it had been looked at at all!
A public National Health Service
People have become all-too accustomed to scandals in the health service. The cervical cancer scandal needs to be the event that causes people to demand change – no more outsoucing, no more privatisation. We need to mobilise a movement to fight for a fully funded, national health service run for people, not profit.