Thursday 17 April 2014

Basic healthcare costs soaring despite pledges

Price hikes, benefit cuts and new charges hit patients

Minister for Health James Reilly at the Fine Gael National Conference in the South Court hotel in Limerick, yesterday.
Photo: Tony Gavin 12/10/2013
Minister for Health James Reilly. Photo: Tony Gavin

Bills for basic health needs are spiralling -- despite pre-election promises by the Government to make the cost of getting sick more affordable.

While the Government was elected on pledges of free GP care for all and universal healthcare insurance, the financial reality for many is much different, an Irish Independent analysis of healthcare costs has found.

A series of hikes, new charges and a downgrading of benefits for older people in particular have pushed up the cost of getting ill.

In 2014, some 35,000 people over 70 will lose their medical card due to tougher eligibility rules and will get a GP visit card instead.

This will remove their entitlement to free medication and a public hospital bed as well as the exemption from the A&E charge.

People in this age group with long-term illnesses who are on a lot of medication and may be hospitalised could be nearly €2,500 out of pocket.

It means they could be left with mounting bills, paying €144 a month for medication, €75 a night if hospitalised for 10 days and a €100 A&E charge.

The higher bills are affecting all age groups, and the prescription charge -- which has soared from 50c to €2.50 per item since the Government came in -- is leaving thousands of people on low incomes paying €25 a month for drugs.

They will pay another €43m in these prescription charges this year as the Government exploits a levy that has become a valuable money-spinner for the Health Service Executive (HSE).

Health Minister James Reilly had promised to abolish this charge during the last election, saying it could put people at risk of not taking medicines.

A raft of other charges are also being collected, with cancer patients having to pay €75 a day, up to a maximum of €750 a year, for treatment since October last year when hospitals started demanding the charge.


And hospitals with minor injury units were also given the go-ahead to start charging patients €100 for their first visit.

Elderly and disabled people who need extra home help are having to pay between €20 to €40 an hour in parts of Dublin for the first time.

Although the HSE is responsible for providing state-funded home help directly, or by paying other agencies to do the work, it is now giving permission for clients to be charged for additional hours.

The change in eligibility criteria for medical cards since the Government took office has meant that tens of thousands are quietly losing out and paying more.

There have been two cuts to medical card eligibility limits for the over-70s, and 22,000 previously unemployed people who had the full card for three years after getting a job are losing it to a GP card in 2014.

The Government also made it harder for all age groups to qualify for a card by no longer including the first €50 a week travel-to-work expenses or a home improvement loan in their means assessment.

Private patients are also shelling out more for health insurance premiums with premiums soaring several times a year as insurers blame various higher levies imposed by the Government.

Tax relief for medical insurance premiums is also being restricted to the first €1,000 per adult insured and the first €500 per child insured (including students aged 18-22 years in full-time education).

Although the Government is promising free GP care for 240,000 children in 2014, it will be next summer at the earliest before it is in place.

Eamonn Timmins of Age Action said it was extremely concerned about the impact the increased prescription levy was having on the sickest and poorest of older people, many of whom are on multiple medications.

He said their analysis of the situation was that those who were most dependent on the State for their basic supports had been hit hardest by the cuts.

Irish Independent

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