The outbreak of hepatitis C is one of the recurring nightmares experienced from time to time by most people who have anything to do with the practice of medicine. Medicine today is a high technology area but it is also a science which depends more than most on the application of human resources. Therefore, it is also a science subject to human error which can start a chain reaction and result in a tragedy such as this involving hepatitis C.
We can all forgive someone who makes a genuine error provided that upon realising the mistake he or she does everything possible to minimise the consequences. I do not intend to be in any way political and I can fully understand the dilemma in which the Minister finds himself. I have watched the Minister in the House on a number of occasions handle himself admirably in difficult circumstances. However, I have never seen the Minister as angry as on the issue of hepatitis C. The reason is that he realises there is something not right in this case. As I have said before, none of us makes the Minister responsible for what happened in this matter so many years ago. However, he has had his day in the sun in his portfolio and the manner in which he is handling this tragedy is not that of a compassionate Minister for Health, which is what this tragedy deserves.
By his own admission he is at the mercy of the Department of Finance. I have heard the Taoiseach, the Minister and some of their backbench colleagues say that we are making this into a political issue. We were even asked to take the beef tribunal into account. As it was eloquently put in the House last night, this is not about beef but about human beings, their suffering and tragedy. This is not a case in which prudent management demands cost cutting, no more than a parent would take such an attitude when deciding whether a child could have an expensive operation.
I received a letter in December 1995 from the Department of Health when I asked about the tribunal. A line in the letter caught my attention. It described the proposed tribunal as one which would assess compensation on anex gratia basis for the victims of the BTSB's negligence. This is to say, in effect, nobody is to blame but here is a few pounds out of the generosity of our hearts.
The BTSB has now accepted responsibility and Mrs. Brigid McCole was forced, under threat, to accept its estimate of compensation. The judicial tribunal should carefully comment on the letter sent on 20 September 1996 by the BTSB to Mrs. McCole's legal advisers. It admitted liability and apologised but only in the context of a threat that if Mrs. McCole were to proceed with an action for aggravated or exemplary damages and not succeed, it would pursue her for costs.
Is the Minister aware that the making of a lodgment put further pressure on Mrs. McCole? Had her eventual award in court not exceeded the lodgment she would have been compelled by law to pay the legal costs of the BTSB and, as a result, could have ended up with nothing. The purpose of the lodgment was to force a settlement upon her and not to negotiate, yet the Minister attempted to make capital out of having paid her expenses. I put it to the Minister that had she gone to court she would have won her case for aggravated damages with costs.
I will give three cases of women who have died and I will begin with that of Mrs. McCole. I asked the Minister why her case was not heard in the early summer rather than being put back to 8 October. He replied that it was because the BTSB was not ready and that the decision was also based on medical reports. There were three medical reports. One report was from a professor who dealt with Mrs. McCole's case up to a certain point in time and it was equivocal. Mrs. McCole's case was then taken on by a second consultant who had attended Mrs. McCole over a period of years. He had seen her condition deteriorate over the years, it was his opinion that her health had deteriorated seriously and that a liver transplant should have been contemplated.
The third report was from a third consultant. Who commissioned this third report? On what basis was the decision made on this report? This consultant made his report on the basis of a onceoff visit to Mrs. McCole and reference to textbooks. There are no experts in the field of hepatitis C. However, the Minister indicates that the medical report was one of the reasons Mrs. McCole's case was put back. The cases of those who are seeking compensation through the courts have not yet been heard.
Why did the tribunal not ask for a report from Mrs. McCole's general practitioner? It was her GP who asked Mrs. McCole's legal advisers to seek an early court case. Had he been asked he would have told the court that she would not have been fit to stand up in July or August, let alone stand up in court in October. It happens from time to time that the doctor who has been seeing a patient over a lengthy period of time is ignored and the case is dealt with by an expert brought in to do the job on behalf of an organisation.
The second case I bring to the Minister's attention is that of a woman called Susan who has also died. She falls into a category that has not yet been considered by the compensation tribunal. The patients in that category have an underlying pathological condition, require a blood transfusion and as a result developed hepatitis C. Susan had hepatitis C but patients in the category into which she fell will not receive compensation and neither will her family who looked after her through the years.