Eilish O Regan – You are so so right! Well Done!!

Have families who rely on disability services been used as pawns? Why were they forced to take to the streets across the country yesterday , disrupting their already highly stressed lives caring for people with a disability to protest about cuts in frontline services?

Behind the scenes was a carefully orchestrated public relations battle between private companies, hired by the voluntary bodies, and government spokesmen.

On the face of it, people with a disability and their families are victims of years of inertia on the part of the Department of Health, health boards and the Health Service Executive (HSE) to ensure the vast sums paid to disability organisations are properly accounted for .

The 40-plus voluntary bodies, which received over €1bn to provide disability services this year, are failing to show proper financial transparency and have highly paid executives on their staff as well as outdated management structures.

Health authorities here have been content to hand over taxpayers’ money to these organisations for years without tackling inefficiencies that have now come to a head due to the cuts imposed this year.

The response of the Brothers in Charity was to warn that respite and other services might have to be cut while the Sisters of Charity is to impose similar reductions in service in Dublin.

Yet we know little of how these organisations are run, the level of salaries paid and what efforts have been made to follow up on a highly critical report by the Comptroller and Auditor General four years ago which called for a massive overhaul of this whole area.

It found that one leading provider of disability services got €288m in health funding without furnishing any audited accounts.

Despite this lack of transparency, the health service imposed no sanction and did not alter its level of funding.

The investigation by the taxpayers’ watchdog found poor controls generally over non-profit organisations providing services to people with a physical or mental disability.

A spokesman for the St John of God organisation at the time confirmed it was the unnamed organisation referred to in the report. It said pressure on resources meant the emphasis was put on hiring frontline workers rather than adminstrative staff. It later produced audited accounts.

The report showed that, in one year, the bodies received €877m in funding to care for 65,000 people with a physical or mental disability. Yet, in many cases, financial reporting norms were not being followed.

In one year, 25 organisations got more than €10m; another 75 got between €1m and €10m; while another 683 grants, averaging €100,000, were distributed to smaller bodies.

In 12 of the 42 cases examined, financial statements for 2003 were not on file, although the bodies concerned received €100m in funding.

Checks of annual financial statements varied. It was noted that spending on headquarter costs and overheads was not generally reported.

And remuneration packages of executives and management of non-profit organisations were not generally disclosed.

Junior Health Minister John Moloney was yesterday talking about the need for backroom savings in areas like transport services and procurement where voluntary bodies could band together to get greater value for money.

There are other key issues that need to be tackled, such as the quality of service provided by several of the voluntary organisations, and anecdotal accounts of families being afraid to question what they were receiving for fear of losing out.

There is now talk of sending auditors in to examine the accounts for these organisations in advance of the Budget.

The run up to the Budget gives both sides time to do a overdue root and branch overhaul.

– Eilish O’Regan

Irish Independent Thursday July 8th

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