Health IT blunder still under investigation

22 Jul 2005

The Health Services Executive (HSE) has reaffirmed that the €120m PPARS (personnel, payroll and related systems) procedure is working well, serving 36,000 staff weekly and fortnightly and will be rolled out to 70,000 HSE staff and 30,000 voluntary-sector employees in the coming months. However, the auditor investigating the project has told an investigation is still being conducted.

It emerged on Wednesday during a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee that there were serious concerns about the project – the €120m jewel in the crown of its strategy to modernise the Irish health system. It also subsequently emerged the Comptroller and Auditor General is investigating the project to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted on yet another IT failure reminiscent of the failed Credit Union IT project of recent years.

Most embarrassingly for the HSE was the revelation that an employee was paid €1m in error but this was not picked up by the system. It was only when the employee brought this to the attention of her employer that the glitch was noticed.

It was also claimed fundamental errors were made at the early stage of the project that would prevent the system being enhanced in the future without major additional costs. It was claimed the project was handled in such a way that only four individuals have the technical expertise to run the system.

It was also claimed there is little evidence that the various stakeholders in the health services bought into the project at senior management level.

The function of the PPARS system is to manage the payroll, time scheduling and personnel records of Ireland’s 120,000 health workers and covers 70pc of the Government’s €10bn a year health budget spend. The system was built on a platform including IBM servers and SAP enterprise resource planning software. The project rollout was managed by consulting firm Deloitte. Both Deloitte and SAP declined to comment on the situation.

Various media reports had claimed a report on the project had been completed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, but the very official investigating the project, John Buckley, told the investigation is still under way and when it is complete a full report will be submitted to the Dáil.

Buckley said the investigation had been triggered by concerns about the time, cost and functionality of the PPARS system. “Yes it was delayed and was costing more than planned and there were elements that had to be cut back upon. We wouldn’t embark on a project [investigation] without there being an issue in the first place.”

Buckley explained: “We are looking at the project, the costs, the planned functionality and how it was planned and managed, and we want to see it is achieving the benefits. The reality is it has to be value for money for the Irish taxpayer.”

Buckley also said it was erroneously reported that only four people knew how to use the system. “Certainly there were four people key to the construction of the system but there are many more people using the system throughout the various health boards on a day-to-day basis, carrying out administrative tasks and recording payroll details.”

Despite all the interest the project has garnered, the HSE last night dismissed the €1m overpayment as “an old story related to starting-up error”.

In a statement it said the system currently serves 36,000 staff weekly and fortnightly and is being rolled out to all staff – 70,000 HSE staff and 30,000 voluntary sector workers – over the next few months. “The case of an employee being overpaid actually happened over a year ago and was resolved at the time. The cause of the overpayment was due to a combination of human error and procedural gaps. Measures were put in place to ensure no repeat of the error,” the HSE said.

The HSE acknowledged that during the first ‘live’ run of the new system in a former health board that a data-entry error resulted in an overpayment. “Due to pressure of work around the time of the first ‘go live’ a control report from the system highlighting the error was missed. This control step has since been strengthened and made a mandatory internal requirement before payments are issued.”

HSE said the overpayment was initially brought to light by the immediate and honest response of the staff member who received the incorrect payment. The money was reimbursed in full on the same day.

“It should be noted that follow-up controls, such as bank reconciliation and payroll analysis, would have highlighted the error in any event. In response to the error, the primary payroll controls were immediately reviewed and enhanced to help prevent such an occurrence again. Notwithstanding individual (and rare) cases of error, the HSE is confident that payments to staff members are being made with a high level of accuracy and timeliness under the new system, which has been in use for almost two years now,” the HSE said.

In conclusion the HSE said: “It is important to note that PPARS extends beyond the implementation of a computer system. In particular it is not solely the setting up of a new payroll system. It is a business-modernisation programme with a huge emphasis on the establishment of standard human resources and payroll rules, practices and procedures across the former health boards, which were diverse and autonomous organisations. It is a crucial component of the HSE’s development as a national organisation.”

By John Kennedy