Tuesday, 14 December 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I welcome the Minister of State and thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter. I ask the Minister for Health and Children to explain the rationale for leaving children with hearing loss or who are deaf without an audiological scientist in Galway since 2002, apart from some sketchy periods when a qualified person has been provided on an ad hoc basis. I ask the Minister of State to outline the timeframe for filling this post and indicate when it will be filled.
I am about to share with the Minister of State an incredible scandal involving a clear infringement of the rights of deaf children. If he listens, as I know he will, he will understand why this is the case. Since 2002 in Galway children with hearing loss or require a hearing test have had to wait considerably long periods before seeing an audiological scientist. There has been no full-time audiological scientist in the area since 2002 and the HSE has only provided a limited and inadequate service, using visiting qualified scientists in three to four sessions per month to assess children. The current waiting list runs to almost 1,300 deaf children who are awaiting their first assessment and review. Clearly, this is unacceptable.
During the years the HSE has attempted to fill the post but to no avail. The last time it was advertised was early 2009, at which point four candidates were invited to attend an interview. Two withdrew for personal reasons, while two were waiting to be interviewed when the embargo on recruitment was implemented. Their interviews were cancelled as a result. Should an embargo have been applied in this case? I say, “No.” By November 2009 the HSE was unable to meet its commitment to provide even a locum service, thus leaving deaf children in Galway without a service, including hearing tests, the provision of moulds or the upgrading of hearing aids. As a result, with great difficulty parents have had to source moulds and seek tests elsewhere in the country.
In March parents of hearing impaired children in Galway reformed a campaign to fight for the provision of a service for their children.The parents felt it was important to stand up for their children’s rights. As parents they were in a position to know the services they needed for their children to help them develop socially and help develop their speech and language skills and give them access to a good education. In order for this to happen, children need to have full facilities provided by the HSE. They are entitled to a free audiological service until they are 18. The biggest stumbling block in the campaign for a better service is the continued lack of a senior audiological scientist in Galway.
Let me remind the Minister of State what an audiological scientist does and how he helps deaf and hearing-impaired children. An audiologist is a health care professional specialising in identifying, diagnosing, testing and monitoring disorders of the auditory and vestibular system portions of the ear. Audiologists are trained to diagnose, manage and treat hearing or balance problems. They are also involved in newborn hearing screening programs and school hearing screening programmes and they advise on special fittings and hearing protection devices to help prevent hearing loss. They are critical to the early identification of deafness, and thus are critical to the successful treatment of deafness and hearing impairment and to coping with it.
This is the essential expert service that has been absent in 1,300 children’s lives in Galway. If the Minister of State or I were a parent of a hearing-impaired or deaf child, we would be testing this case in the courts. It is unbelievable that all the children in question have been treated as they have been. It has affected the quality of their lives and prevented them from getting an even break alongside hearing children in so far as this is possible with their condition. It contributes to the lack of an appropriate education, to which we have a right. An education should be appropriate to one’s needs. If the Government had implemented the EPSEN Act, these children’s rights would be protected. The HSE has not tried hard enough to get an audiologist for them.
I learned today that the HSE interviewed yesterday a candidate for the post of audiologist. Given the evolving circumstances, has the HSE found a suitable candidate? If so, has he or she been ring-fenced for Galway, which has been so neglected for a long time and which is now at crisis point given that nearly 1,300 children are waiting to be seen? It is a daunting task for one audiologist to try to diagnose and meet the ongoing treatment needs of 1,300 children. Without this very basic and essential service, deaf children are being further disabled by this State. I am keen to hear the response of the Minister of State.
The HSE has advised that the senior audiological scientist post in Galway has been vacant since 2002, as the Senator pointed out. The HSE has managed to secure the services of two sessional audiological scientists to provide a limited service from the period August 2008 to November 2009 and from May 2010 to the present. Strenuous efforts have been made to appoint an audiological scientist to address the needs of hearing-impaired children under the age of five years. In spite of repeated attempts to recruit someone with the appropriate qualifications, the HSE has been unsuccessful due to a scarcity of suitably qualified candidates.
The HSE is extremely conscious that the initial assessment and review of children is vital to ensure that they have the appropriate interventions and aids required for linguistic development and, as a consequence, improved social skills and educational capacity. The HSE has been granted a derogation from the public sector moratorium on recruitment in respect of this post. The HSE is at present in the process of recruiting a directly employed audiological scientist.
Interviews for the vacant audiological scientist post were held on 13 December 2010. Subject to a successful candidate being recommended, the panel will take effect on 20 December 2010. In the best-case scenario, it would take a few weeks to have the person in post. For example, a candidate from overseas may require a work permit, overseas police clearances and outside references. We are making progress on the matter and I hope a suitable person will be recommended by the interview panel. We take on board the concerns expressed by Senator Healy Eames regarding this matter and hope the post will be filled as quickly as possible. The failure to date is not so much a scandal but a reflection of a serious shortage of suitably qualified people. The Senator is well motivated in making her argument, as are the parents concerned, but it is not an argument that classically fits into the Government good-Opposition bad or Opposition bad-Government good dichotomies. It is simply a reflection of the lack of suitable candidates coming forward with the qualification in question.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I thank the Minister of State for his response but I really do not accept it. The HSE has dragged its heels in this matter. I bet that this is the first time the Minister of State has heard about this matter. Some 1,300 deaf children have no service. Given that four candidates presented and two were willing to go ahead with interviews, why was the public service embargo applied in the first instance? It was applied because of stupidity and because the HSE was not thinking, trying hard enough or making a case strongly enough. Why did it not try harder? When we were short of nurses, they were recruited in the Philippines.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I am not accountable for them but if there was any performance on their part that was not up to standard, one would clearly like to get evidence thereof, which evidence the Senator is hinting at. We have an interest in the competent and efficient conduct of public bodies such as the HSE. If there was tardiness or incompetence on the HSE’s part, I would like to hear what the Senator is alleging in detail. If there is lacklustre performance, it should be brought to the attention of the Minister.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I do not want to sound as if I am giving lessons. The public service embargo was applied to everyone without exception. As the Senator knows, because of the austerity measures in the past year the first decision the Minister for Finance made was that all individual departures from the embargo had to be by way of individual application to him directly. It is not the case that some sectors were shielded while others were not. It was suggested in a newspaper some days ago that, since the beginning of the embargo, the Minister has signed in the order of 2,600 applications, or has agreed to some thousands of applications.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: Some people are actually criticising the Minister for making these exceptions. He has considered applications case by case. It is a matter for the management of an organisation, be it the HSE or otherwise, to prioritise the vacancies it wants filled at a given time.
There may be some substance to what the Senator is suggesting but I am not in a position to declare one way or another whether the HSE in Galway was incompetent in this matter. I simply do not have the evidence to suggest it was or was not. Clearly, prioritisation is required on the part of all public bodies to determine the posts they need filled urgently and the kinds of arguments they should put forward in this regard.
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