I want to thank the Cathaoirieach for allowing me to being this matter into the House for discussion and to highlight the problem with regard to St. Joseph's Hospital in Coole. I should like to congratulate the Minister of State and wish him the best of luck in his new undertaking.
I have addressed the House on several occasions but not when you were in the Chair, a Leas-Chathaoirligh and I want to congratulate you and wish you well. I know it is only the start of greater things for you. You treated us very fairly when you were in the Chair in the last Seanad and I have no doubt that you will do the same for us in this Seanad.
I should like to call on the Minister to reconsider his decision with regard to St. Joseph's Hospital, Coole. The hospital is situated on 12 acres. The entire building is perfectly maintained and contains four wards, a modem operating theatre, recreation hall, a physiotherapy room, hydrotherapy pool, laundry, five classrooms, dining halls, playgrounds, workshops, sunken bathrooms etc., all on the ground floor and covering in all 75.000 square feet. There is bed space for over 150 adults. There is also an administration building, a nurses' home containing over 50 rooms and a doctors' suite.
All this arose from a reply from Deputy Desmond, Minister for Health, to one of our local Oireachtas representatives, Deputy Gerry L'Estrange. He stated in the letter to the Deputy that since the closure of Coole hospital in 1981 considerable thought had been given by both the Midland and North-Eastern Health Boards in conjunction with his Department to devising a scheme whereby the hospital could be used in the health services. He said that no realistic proposal had emerged, which was hardly surprising as both the location and structure of the building stood in the way of it being used for health purposes. The health board have written back to the Minister asking him to reconsider his decision. How can the Minister condemn something he has not even seen?
There is no doubt in my mind that a hospital such as St. Joseph's in Coole, which is in perfect structural condition, could not be erected at today's prices for anything less than £5 million or £6 million. With no money available to build a similar structure, St. Joseph's in Coole can be used immediately at very little expense. It is a disgrace to leave Coole hospital lying idle when there is such a great need for a hospital with its potential. In present financial circumstances, this valuable asset should not be lost. This hospital, which is awaiting occupancy, is threatened by so-called experts who say it has outlived its usefulness, at a time when the Midland Health Board admit widespread overcrowding. This is not the view of the ordinary Westmeath person.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Barry Desmond, went on public record to say that Coole hospital was not suitable for health services. With all due respect to the Minister, who has not been to Coole, he has been badly advised. The Health Board have made four suggestions to the Minister as to how they could service Coole hospital and keep it open as a hospital.
We all know there is a crying need for facilities for adult mentally handicapped patients. With 150 beds available this could alleviate the problem to some extent. Coole hospital is only 12 miles from St. Loman's in Mullingar and it is only three miles from St. Peter's hospital in Castlepollard. It could not be said to be out in the wilderness and too far away to take patients of that nature. At present there is a two to three year waiting period for hip operations and hip replacements in Navan hospital. If Coole hospital were in operation this waiting list would be reduced greatly. As we have the highest unemployment — 18 per cent — in north-west Meath of the five midland counties, it would help in no small way to have State participation to keep jobs in rural Ireland. This is a very fine hospital in a beautiful part of the country. It is in perfect repair and is needed for the treatment and accommodation of the sick. It is also needed to give employment to our people. As the only Oireachtas Member living in the Coole electoral area, I personally invite the Minister to come down to see this very valuable unit, which could be a great asset to the State, before making his final decision.