PENSIONERS are back in the firing line with a raft of savage cuts in today's Budget.
After years of being largely untouched, older people will be hit with painful cuts to medical cards, household benefit packages and even death grants.
One in 10 pensioners over 70 will lose their full medical card and get a GP-only card in return.
The pensioners' telephone allowance, worth €114 a year, is also being abolished. And the death grant to help cover funeral costs, worth €850 to the families of the deceased, is being scrapped.
The Government is risking the wrath of the powerful grey vote for the first time since the Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition targeted medical cards five years ago.
The move mobilised older voters into some of the largest, most effective protests seen here in years. The Government was eventually forced to back down.
While young families will get a boost as free GP care is being provided to every child under five in the country, the Government is cutting the number of full medical cards for the over-70s by tightening the income qualification thresholds.
At the moment, 350,000 over-70s have a full medical card, but 35,000 of these will be downgraded to a free GP-only card. The income thresholds will be reduced from €600 a week to €500 a week for a single person, and €1,200 a week to €900 a week for a couple.
This is calculated to save €25m, implying that the cost of paying the drugs bill for pensioners works out at €700 each.
Apart from the over-70s, no changes to medical card income thresholds for other beneficiaries are expected.
But after being reduced from €22.58 to €9.50 a month, the telephone allowance is now being abolished, saving €48m a year. The allowance is also paid to people with disabilities and to carers.
The electricity and gas elements of the household benefits package are not expected to be touched.
But the €850 bereavement grant -- which is available to almost everyone -- will be withdrawn entirely from the start of next year. It is paid to about 15,000 families annually. The cut will save €13m a year.
However, it is understood poorer people or those in financial difficulty will still be able to get help with their funeral costs. They will be able to get assistance through the exceptional needs payment scheme. This helps with once-off exceptional spending when people cannot afford large amounts.
Employers will have to cover the first six days of pay for a sick staff member. Until now, illness benefit kicked in after three days.
But this period will now double to six days from January, placing an additional cost burden on companies.
There will be a tightening up and restructuring of certain social welfare schemes, such as the invalidity pension, which is paid to people who are permanently incapable of work because of illness or incapacity.
Its name is slightly misleading, in that it is not only paid to pensioners but people of all ages. The rate is currently €193.50 a week, but increases to the full pension rate of €230.30 a week once someone hits 65.
However, the full pension amount is now payable once a person hits 66, since the pension age has increased.
"There is a technical change but no one already in receipt of the invalidity pension will see their payment reduced," a source said.
And in a move set to hit thousands of working mothers, maternity benefit payments face a cut in the Budget.
A new measure to recoup certain social welfare payments paid for the loss of earnings from people who receive compensation awards for accident or injury will also be announced. But the move will not affect the person awarded the compensation. Instead, it will be clawed back from the insurance companies.
At the moment, insurance companies are entitled to reduce the amount of a settlement in respect of loss of earnings arising from an accident by an amount equivalent to the benefits paid. This ensures there is only one payment to cover loss of earnings, not two.
The insurance companies retain the money involved, rather than reimbursing the State. The new measure will place a formal obligation on the insurance companies to repay this money to the Department of Social Protection.
BY FIACH KELLY, FIONNAN SHEAHAN AND CHARLIE WESTON