Is health really an issue in election 2011?

With jobs and the economy top of the election 2011 agenda, is health really a concern for voters and candidates in this election, asks Sara Burke.

Health tends to come high up on voters' priority lists but it's definitely not top this time. Of course, the focus is on jobs, economy, and the bank bailout. And while there is lots of rhetoric on health, we have yet to see much of the detail from political parties and candidates.

This is different to previous occasions when health caused and influenced elections. Compare it to the 1987, when the Fianna Fáil slogan 'health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped'. In 1989, a health issue – the compensation for people infected with haemophilia through infected blood products caused the Fianna Fáil government to fall and resulted in them going into coalition for first time with PDs.

In the 2002 election, health was a big issue with five 'health' candidates elected. And Fianna Fáil/ PDs went to the country in 2002 saying 'the economy is booming, we have a new health strategy under the stewardship of Micheál Martin, re-elect us and we will implement it'. And they were successful, they got re-elected but failed to implement the vast majority of the recommendations in the health strategy.

Yet none of the health candidates were re-elected in 2007, when health fell off the election agenda. There is some renewed interest in health this time round, despite the focus on the economy, with some health specific candidates.

Conor MacLiam, husband of Susie Long is running in Carlow/Kilkenny for the Socialist party and the United Left Alliance under a 'Healthcare for all, not for profit' ticket. MacLiam has campaigned since Susie's death specifically for a hospice in Carlow/Kilkenny and access to diagnosis in St Lukes.

James Breen is running as an Independent in Clare. Breen is an ex-Fianna Fáil local candidate, he was then elected in 2002 as Independent but lost his seat in 2007 and is running again this time round, campaigning for the retention of services in Ennis hospital.

What is common among these campaigners is that they are largely hospital campaigners (as opposed to running on a health policy platform). Ming Flanagan, an Independent in Roscommon has been very active on 'saving the local hospital'. Mattie McGrath – ex-Fianna Fáil – one of the four FFers outside of the party whip in the last government is running again in South Tipperary and has been big on saving services in local hospitals.

Joe Behan, who resigned on the removal of medical cards for over 70-year-olds is running again as an Independent in Wicklow. Eamon Scanlon is running in Sligo on a Fianna Fáil ticket. Common to all of these is that they are running in areas where hospitals are being reconfigured or cancer services have been removed.

Another common theme is ex-Independents who have joined political parties. Jerry Cowley, an elected Independent between 2002 and 2007, (but lost in 2007) is now running for Labour in Mayo. Liam Twomey in Wexford, another ex-Independent elected in the 2002 election is now running for Fine Gael.

Dr John Hillery, son of President John Hillery is running for Fianna Fáil in Clare. He was in the news on 2 February when he was canvassing in Ennis with Micheál Martin. They were quizzed by local and national media on Ennis hospital and Martin's promise as minister in 2002 that Ennis would not be downgraded. Hillery subsequently issued a press release looking for a review of hospital services in the mid-west. This shows the pressure they are feeling locally as the local hospital is a big issue on the ground.

Senator Phil Prendergast, a former member of Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG), is running for Labour in Tipperary South, the same constituency as Mattie McGrath. Prendergast is a high profile member of the Irish Nurses Organisation, and although she is not running on a health specific ticket that's what her credentials are locally. She is one of the few women running on a health ticket, not surprising given the very low representation of women, who make up just 15% of all candidates.

Another woman running is Betty Holmes, an activist in Donegal North Action for Cancer Care, running very specifically on a health ticket and getting cancer services for Donegal. And there are lots of left candidates running that have health as part of their platform. These include SWP/PBP's Joan Collins and Richard Boyd-Barret who are both very active on the retention of services in Cherry Orchard, Ballyfermot and St Michael's in Dun Laoghaire.

There are also a lot of Independents who have health as part of their campaigns and very clear thoughts on the type of health service we should have: Eamon Walsh in Galway West, John Hyland in Dublin Central, Marcus de Brun in Dublin North running under a 'health reform now' ticket wanting to pay doctors less, drive down costs, and have a much more public-oriented health system.

But we have yet to see the meat on the political parties' health proposals. So far Fianna Fáil has no health policy and has not had one since 2004 when Mary Harney went into the health ministry. The Greens have none since they abandoned their health policies to go into government with Fianna Fáil. Since 2009 Fine Gael has had a well-publicised health policy (which it relaunched on 3 February) but promised lots more detail which has not materialised 18 months on. Sinn Féin have had no new health policy since before the last election in 2007. On Tuesday (8 February) however, Labour launched its 'Plan for Fair Health Care' and Fianna Fail's Barry Andrews has said his party will publish its health policy by the end of the week or early next week so it appears the parties are getting into gear..

Hopefully the full details will emerge in the next two weeks so that there is time to discuss the policy content and get away from the consistent focus on spin, polls and leaders' debates. We badly need a national debate on the type of health service we want and the type of society we want to live in.