THE government decision to unexpectedly axe the mobility schemes for the disabled was aimed at pre-empting a test case which could potentially see thousands more people become eligible.
It is understood that a woman in her 70s has been granted a hearing at the Equality Tribunal next week challenging the upper age limit of 65 years for the mobility allowance – and similar cases are to follow.
The Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has already found this upper age limit breaches the Equality Status Act and this was conceded by the Department of Health.
The knock-on effect of a successful challenge by the woman would effectively open the floodgates to thousands of other older eligible people to the allowance of €208.50 a month.
The mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant, which cost €10.6m a year, provide financial assistance to the severely disabled to help with their transport costs such as taxis.
The upper age limit for the motorised transport grant, which allows people to buy or adapt a car, was already removed following a previous challenge before the Equality Tribunal.
Disability groups and various representatives of the elderly reacted with dismay at the decision to shelve the scheme and castigated the Government for the hamfisted way it was handled in advance of a promised review.
The 4,700 people receiving the allowance will continue to get it for another four months and all applications already submitted for the transport grant will also be processed.
Minister of state with responsibility for disability, Kathleen Lynch, said a review group chaired by former senior civil servant Sylda Langford will devise a new scheme to help with the transport costs of the disabled.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who faced Opposition criticism in the Dail over the axing of the grant, said the €10.6m allocated to the schemes would be ringfenced and included in the new scheme.
Mr Kenny said the current scheme was illegal, discriminatory and not in compliance with the Equal Status Act and the Disability Act.
"We have to make provision for a new scheme where the monies can be spent in respect of people who need them," he said.
Ms Lynch said if the mobility schemes were extended it would create serious "financial pressure on the health budget in the current climate and would be unsustainable", leaving the department with a bill of up to €300m.
"The facts are that if we keep this scheme going as it now exists it will be opened to everyone over 65 who within the Disability Act is defined as having a disability. We cannot afford that," she added.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said people with serious mobility and disability issues should not be singled out for a cut in income.
The system of cash payments is expected to be changed and the Department of Health said the new scheme will be drawn up in consultation with other relevant government departments.