Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Welsh Health Minister in trouble


A minor scandal is rocking the boat of the Welsh Government at the moment. The health minister Lesley Griffiths has commissioned a report on the restructuring of the National Health Service in Wales. The author of the report makes a strong case for removing some services from local hospitals. The argument is that providing the full range of health services in small local hospitals is financially unsustainable in the long term. The urgency of health reforms is undisputed. The 7 health boards have already a projected shortfall this year of £240 million. Since the Welsh Government cannot raise taxes and its core budget is fixed by an annual grant from the Chancellor, this money has to be taken from contingency funds or come from other expenditure areas, such as education. 
However, here is the problem. The author of the report into the restructuring of the health services seems to have had some doubts about his own findings. At some point he contacted the Welsh Government, arguing that the case for the closure of some hospital services in some areas was not as strong as previously thought and asked for ‘better evidence to make the case’. The relevant email exchange has become public and the opposition has cried foul. It seems, so the opposition parties argue, the report was anything but independent if its author thought it necessary to ask the government to provide additional data to make the case that the government wanted him to make. 
Hospital closure can be fatal to political careers, and Lesslie Griffiths is not the first politician to get into hot water for her desire to concentrate some hospital services in bigger population centres. However there is an irony here in the fact that she has consistently, and probably bravely, made the case for health service reform for which she is now criticised while her predecessor Edwina Hart, who was widely seem as ineffectual and out of depth, continuously dodged this issue when in the ministerial seat. 
The opposition parties are equally well advised to tread carefully around this issue. While it is right to criticise the minister for declaring a report to be independent and impartial if it was anything but, they may want to be careful not to undermine the case for reform overall of the health service in Wales. The fact is that the Welsh NHS cannot continue the way it operates at the moment. Welsh politicians of all colour recognise the need for radical reform yet their populist instincts may tempt them to argue against it. In the long term, this serves no one, least of all the people in Wales. 

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