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Tuesday 30 September 2014

U-turn over medical card shambles in election climbdown

Cabinet announces review but no details in bid to defuse doorstep backlash

Eilish O'Regan, Philip Ryan and Emma Jane Hade

Published 21/05/2014 | 02:30

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Protester Nora Byrne makes her feelings known about lost medical cards during Health Minister James Reilly’s visit to the Mater Hospital in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
Protester Nora Byrne makes her feelings known about lost medical cards during Health Minister James Reilly’s visit to the Mater Hospital in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
Enda Kenny has moved to take the heat out of the controversial removal of medical cards from seriously ill children just three days ahead of the local and European elections. Photo: Tom Burke
Enda Kenny has moved to take the heat out of the controversial removal of medical cards from seriously ill children just three days ahead of the local and European elections. Photo: Tom Burke
Maria Moran from Gormanstown, Co Meath, who had a stroke and is now battling to get her medical card back, pictured in her home with  husband Don. Picture:Mark Condren
Maria Moran from Gormanstown, Co Meath, who had a stroke and is now battling to get her medical card back, pictured in her home with husband Don. Picture:Mark Condren

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has moved to take the heat out of the controversial removal of medical cards from seriously ill children just three days ahead of the local and European elections.

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The Government, which has stood by as a litany of distressing cases was made public, has now announced that the way the cards are reviewed is to change.

Ministers have also admitted that the conduct of the reviews has in some cases been insenstive.

However, there is no detail of what the U-turn will mean for the number of medical cards to be clawed back or how families’ entitlements will change.

Pressure has been growing on the Government after a series of parents went public to tell of how medical cards were suddenly taken away from their children.

The latest case highlighted in yesterday’s Irish Independent involved a child with a brain tumour who was stripped of her medical card.

Carly Keogh told how her daughter Aoife was diagnosed last May and the family was issued a medical card to assist with her treatment.

The HSE has apologised to the family and said Aoife’s card is to be restored. Ms Keogh said she was personally contacted by the director of the medical card processing centre after her story appeared in yesterday's Irish Independent as he wanted to “sincerely apologise” for the cancellation of Aoife's medical card.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan said the Government held preliminary discussions yesterday on the controversy that has caused panic among the most vulnerable. Mr Noonan was at pains, however, to stress that the changes were not motivated by Friday’s looming election.

“We are not going to do it before the election because we would be accused of some sort of stunt but shortly after the election that issue will be addressed and some preparatory work has been done already,” he said.

His comments were backed by Mr Kenny. “I think it is probably the process of review itself that causes anxiety and concern for people because the very significant majority of cases have their card continued or rewarded on appeal or whatever,” he said.

“Michael Noonan is right here. We need to look at this. We have looked at it. But I do agree that if you were to make any comment about changing systems or having a different process to approve of medical cards, people would obviously tie it into elections and Friday so we'll do it after the election.”

Their criticism of the system came as Health Minister James Reilly said he is looking at the issue – but remained vague on the kind of measures being considered.

Crisis

He said the Cabinet sub-committee on health was examining the issue but conceded it would be months before they were ready with proposals.

However, the failure of both ministers – and the Taoiseach – to provide any specific proposals comes against the spiralling financial crisis faced by the Health Service Executive (HSE) – casting doubt on how much room for manoeuvre the Government has to make it easier for people to get a medical card.

Dr Reilly's comments mark something of a change of tone from the response to the controversy up to now when both he and Junior Minister Alex White stressed medical cards were issued on the basis of means.

They have consistently said that some people, previously granted a card on discretionary grounds, were now losing it because their income substantially exceeded the threshold.

However, asked about the ongoing cases of hardship, he said yesterday it was the “unintended consequence” of the centralisation of medical cards that children with Down syndrome or sufferers of motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis lost their cards.

There was a need to impose the same eligibility criteria for the issuing of discretionary cards in all counties because some areas were missing out and others were 70pc over the national average.

“The whole probity around the medical card issue was to address a disparity,” he said. However, he acknowledged: “We appear to have created an even greater inequity.”

Dr Reilly, who was at the official opening of the €284m Whitty wing in the Mater Hospital in Dublin, said: “I understand the pain and distress caused. This is not a place I want to be as a doctor and as a Minister for Health.

“I know Government is concerned. We have done some work with the health sub-committee and we will be meeting again to address the issues. We are working very hard to address this issue and I believe we will address it, not in the next week or two but in the next number of months.”

His comments came as he admitted the HSE would not be able to find €108m in unspecified pay savings this year. This leaves the Government with little freedom to relax the income limits for medical cards.

Meanwhile, the Our Children's Health campaign was officially launched yesterday afternoon by the parents of sick children who had been affected by the medical card fiasco. An online petition launched by cancer-stricken Louise Shortall gathered almost 20,000 signatures in its first day

“The approach to review of medical cards will have to be changed,” Mr Noonan said.

“We are not going to do it before the election because we would be accused of some sort of stunt but shortly after the election that issue will be addressed and some preparatory work has been done already.”

His comments were backed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as the government comes under growing pressure as terminally ill people are seeing their cards cancelled, and those with genetic conditions asked to prove they are still ill.

“I think it is probably the process of review itself that causes anxiety and concern for people because the very significant majority of cases have their card continued or rewarded on appeal or whatever,” said Mr Kenny.

“Michael Noonan is right here. We need to look at this. We have looked at it. But I do agree that if you were to make any comment about changing systems or having a different process to approve of medical cards, people would obviously tie it into elections and Friday so we’ll do it after the election.”

Their criticism of the system came as Health Minister James Reilly said he is looking at the issue – but remained vague on the kind of measures being considered.

He said the cabinet sub-committee on health was examining the issue but conceded it would be months rather than weeks before they were ready with proposals.

However, the failure of both ministers – and the Taoiseach – to provide any specific proposals comes against the spiralling financial crisis faced by the Health Service Executive (HSE) – casting doubt on how much room for manoeuvre the Government has to make it easier for people to get a medical card.

Dr Reilly’s comments mark something of a change of tone from the response to the controversy up to now when both he and Junior Minister Alex White stressed that medical cards were issued on the basis of means.

They have consistently said that some people, previously granted a card on discretionary grounds, were now losing it because their income substantially exceeded the threshold.

Unintended

However, asked about the ongoing cases of hardship, he said yesterday it was the “unintended consequence” of the centralisation of medical cards that children with Down Syndrome or sufferers of motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis lost their cards.

There was a need to impose the same eligibility criteria for the issuing of discretionary cards in all counties because in some areas were missing out and others were 70pc over the national average.

“The whole probity around the medical card issue was to address a disparity,” he said. However, he acknowledged: “We appear to have created an even greater inequity.”

Dr Reilly, who was at the official opening of the €284m Whitty wing in the Mater Hospital in Dublin - although it has been fully operational since February-, said: “I understand the pain and distress caused. This is not a place I want to be as a doctor and as a Minister for Health.

“I know Government is concerned. We have done some work with the health sub-committee and we will be meeting again to address the issues raised.

We are working very hard to address this issue and I believe we will address it, not in the next week or two but in the next number of months.”

His comments came as he admitted the HSE would not be able to find €108m in unspecified pay savings this year. This leaves the Government with little freedom to relax the income limits for medical cards.

Meanwhile, the Our Children's Health campaign was officially launched yesterday afternoon by the parents of sick children who had been affected by the medical card fiasco. An online petition launched by cancer- stricken Louise Shortall gathered almost 20,000 signatures in its first day.

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