Reilly humiliated and on brink of being fired
Health Minister admits handling of medical card issue a 'disaster'
Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30
Health Minister James Reilly's days in the Cabinet are numbered after he was forced into a humiliating U-turn on medical cards.
Even ministerial colleagues now consider it only a matter of time before he will be moved out of the health portfolio, following the latest debacle.
Last night, Dr Reilly frankly admitted to Fine Gael TDs that the handling of the medical card issue had been a "disaster".
Responding to calls from his own backbenchers for him to be sacked – as reported in the Irish Independent this week – Dr Reilly said whoever was in health would have his full support.
Dr Reilly's entire health reform plan has been undermined after the Cabinet told him to come up with legislation to guarantee that people with serious illnesses would immediately quality for a medical card, regardless of their income level.
Dr Reilly now has to draft plans to return discretionary medical cards to sick people who earlier had them removed.
Just a year ago, his department said it wasn't possible to give medical cards to everyone suffering from a long- term illness.
The fundamental change in direction is regarded in government circles as a "rubicon being crossed".
Last night, Dr Reilly's officials were unable to say how many people would benefit from the new approach – nor how much the rollout of the additional medical cards would actually cost.
This latest U-turn has intensified the speculation that Dr Reilly, the Fine Gael deputy leader, will be moved in next month's reshuffle.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was the instigator of the climbdown on the medical cards at Cabinet sub-committee level.
But Mr Kenny is also still thought to have a lot of time for Dr Reilly.
A series of mishaps and the slow pace of his reforms have prompted a lack of confidence in the minister in government circles.
The Department of Health is already facing a massive deficit of €160m and Dr Reilly has claimed he cannot manage the budget he was given at the start of the year.
Dr Reilly was not present in the Dail when Finance Minister Michael Noonan confirmed the chaotic U-turn yesterday.
Mr Noonan confirmed that discretionary medical cards will be returned to some people who lost them.
The announcement throws into doubt plans for the free GP card by 2016 and the wider roll-out of Universal Health Insurance.
Ministers admitted the wider reforms are now "out the window" and there is uncertainty over how the policy will be defined.
At a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last night, a contrite Dr Reilly was downbeat – but chose to focus on his reform agenda.
Fine Gael TDs again criticised the failure of ministers to listen to backbenchers, and said it was only happening now because the party got a walloping at the polls.
Dr Reilly told the meeting that he had sought repeatedly in recent weeks to address the medical card issue, but that the political will from his cabinet colleagues was not there until last week.
His comments were taken by many present as a criticism of Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin.
Dr Reilly said whoever the minister is after the reshuffle, they cannot allow any further cuts to the health budget – saying it is already cut to the bone.
None of the Fine Gael backbenchers who have publicly called for Dr Reilly to resign spoke at the meeting.
However, there was criticism of the medical card fiasco from backbenchers Michelle Mulherin, Kieran O'Donnell, Heather Humphreys, John O'Mahony and Jerry Buttimer.
At the meeting, Dr Reilly held his hands up and admitted that despite attempts by TDs to raise the medical card issue, the message had not gotten through to ministers.
He told the meeting that the message had now gotten through. "This will be solved – and soon," he added.
After both Fine Gael and Labour suffered significant losses at last month's local elections, the Government has now committed to restoring medical cards to thousands of cardholders who had them withdrawn as part of a controversial Health Service Executive (HSE) eligibility review.
Last night, Fianna Fail's health spokesman Billy Kelleher said both Dr Reilly and Mr White should be sacked for what he called the medical card "fiasco".
There are 30,000 fewer discretionary cards in circulation compared with three years ago, but a large proportion of those who have lost cards moved on to permanent cards.
The number of people who were affected by the withdrawal of their card is believed to be under 10,000.
The Finance Minister earlier said that following an extensive Cabinet discussion on Tuesday, it had been agreed that Ministers Reilly and White would bring proposals to return certain cards.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Noonan said: "There was a long discussion on medical cards in Cabinet yesterday. The Minister for Health is bringing back detailed proposals to government and one of them will deal with the return of medical cards for some of those people who lost them."
In the Dail, Mr Noonan said: "If legislation is necessary to change the eligibility for medical cards and to restore cards to those who have lost them in the recent review, that is a matter which will be brought forward by Minister Reilly and Minister White.
"Proposals will be brought forward by both ministers to Cabinet in the next two weeks and then the date for any legislation to be introduced, if it is necessary, will be decided when those bills are drafted."
The HSE has said the process of extending eligibility for those who were undergoing a review or appeal has started. This follows last week's decision to suspend review of discretionary medical cards. It said those affected were being notified through the normal routes, including text message.
Separately, Mr White and the Irish Medical Organisation yesterday agreed a framework for talks over the future of GP care.
Mr White concluded a series of meetings with the IMO with the signing of the Framework Agreement setting out a process for engagement.