HSE challenged over health unit failings

The HSE has been asked to explain why it spent €1.2 million on a 14-bed mental health unit that has been found to be unsafe for more than six people.

The psychiatric unit at University Hospital Waterford came close to being shut down this year because of serious concerns about patient safety in a watchdog report. The Mental Health Commission, which approves units, had said that it was instead recommending the closure of eight of the fourteen acute mental health beds covering Waterford and Wexford by tomorrow.

The health service is now engaging in last-minute talks to try to prevent the number of beds from being reduced to six. The psychiatric unit covers a population of about 300,000 people in the southeast after a similar facility in Enniscorthy was closed in 2010.

To cope with the increase in demand, the Waterford unit added four acute beds to its ten existing ones. Last year €1.2 million was spent refurbishing the unit to bring it up to standards suitable for 14 people.

James Browne, the Fianna Fáil mental health spokesman, said that the HSE had to be held accountable for the refurbishment. He claimed that it had not brought the unit up to appropriate standards.

“Questions need to be asked about where that money went,” Mr Browne said. “We have a situation now where there could only be six beds for over 300,000 people in the southeast. There are going to be very serious consequences if people are being turned away.”

David Cullinane, the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford, said that the HSE had not engaged with staff at the hospital to explain whether or not services would be cut tomorrow. “Staff are as much in the dark as we are about what will happen this week, which is an intolerable position, given the crucial services at risk,” he said.

In a letter to the HSE dated February 3, the Mental Health Commission said that it “formally withdrew” a warning to refuse to register the unit and effectively shut it down, instead listing four conditions that the HSE must accept before the centre could be registered.

In addition to the reduction in the number of beds, all residents must be given access to therapeutic services, all staff must receive mandatory training and a comprehensive risk-management policy has to be implemented.

“The current acute unit does not provide residents with access to any dining, visiting, recreational or communal spaces. This does not accord with the privacy, dignity or wellbeing of residents accommodated in the acute unit,” it said.

It added that the centre would be registered, under the above conditions, by tomorrow. Staff at the hospital have not been told whether the number of beds will be reduced to six.

Antoinette Murphy, from Waterford City, has suffered with chronic depression and anxiety for 20 years. On January 23 she suffered a panic attack and attended the psychiatric unit at University Hospital Waterford.

“The psychiatrist who saw me said I would have to stay in, and that I couldn’t be allowed home in the condition I was in,” she said. “He spoke to a senior psychiatrist, who said they had no beds. He told me I was the fourth person they turned away that night because there was no space.”

Ms Murphy, who runs a local mental health campaign group called Candles in the Wind, said she was extremely concerned that the unit in Waterford was close to being shut down completely. “I would have sat on that tiled floor all night just to feel safe. Even if I was just left on the floor, at least I wouldn’t have been sent away feeling helpless and hopeless and like nobody cared,” she said.

Helen McEntee, the mental health minister, wrote to TDs last week claiming that the HSE would appeal against the Mental Health Commission’s decision. A spokesman for Ms McEntee told The Times that the minister was “closely monitoring” the situation.

The Mental Health Commission told The Times yesterday that it was considering the representation it had received from the HSE. “After such consideration the commission will respond directly to the service,” a spokeswoman said.

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