The Health Service Executive (HSE) is disputing Whitfield Clinic’s claim to a €1 million refund that the latter contends it has spent while treating public cancer patients.

The Butlerstown-based clinic, a joint venture between Eurocare International and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre treated 707 cancer patients last year and is set to exceed that number by the end of this year (722).

In an effort to quell local fears, the clinic issued a statement over the weekend, in which it stated: “Treatment has been determined by medical need in accordance with agreed clinical protocols. Treatment does not depend on whether patients are public or private.”

Rebutting Whitfield’s claims, the HSE issued the following to this newspaper as we went to press. “We are committed to ensuring that all patients have access to the most appropriate care on a timely basis,” it began.

“The HSE has a Service Level Agreement with Waterford Oncology Associates that provides radiotherapy treatment for public patients.

“The HSE’s priority is to ensure that an appropriate, quality assured radiotherapy service continues to be delivered to public patients. The HSE does not owe €1 million as suggested. All payments for 2009 have been progressed and are up to date.”

The HSE would not be drawn on the practical inconvenience that the potential withdrawal of the service at Whitfield would have on patients living in Waterford and its environs.

Whitfield Clinic has stressed that it continues to provide radiotherapy services, despite the HSE asking it to discontinue Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) last June.

The high-precision IMRT treatment has been described by cancer specialists as the equivalent of “operating with a scalpel rather than a kitchen knife”. It is used to treat vital organ-based cancers such as the brain and spinal chord.

“We have a contractual agreement to provide radiotherapy services including IMRT with the HSE,” reads the Whitfield statement.

“We have continued to provide IMRT radiotherapy for both public and private patients over the last year. We have been in discussions with the HSE for almost 12 months to try to resolve this matter.

The need for local treatment has been clearly demonstrated by the numbers availing of Whitfield’s top-class service, the clinic’s statement reads.

“In our first full year, 2007, we treated 340 patients. By last year, 2008, this figure had grown to 707 patients.”

The statement adds: “Our patients come from right across the south east region with the majority referred by Waterford Regional, Wexford General and South Tipperary Regional in Clonmel.

“The response from patients, consultants and GPs has been very favourable and patients who had to spend up to eight hours travelling to Dublin for treatment can now avail of a state of the art service on their own doorstep.

“Previously some patients had to be admitted to hospital for up to seven weeks for a course of treatment. The provision of a local service means that many patients have been able to continue to work and most attend from home.”

With discussions on the service now entering a second year, it appears that both bodies have agreed to continue to disagree on the IMRT issue.

“The HSE is currently in ongoing discussions with Waterford Oncology Associates with regard to agreeing a new Service Level Agreement,” added a HSE spokesperson. “Part of those discussions involves agreeing appropriate fee levels for care received.”