Thousands of medical card files lost, says Ombudsman
PERSONAL records relating to thousands of medical card holders are missing – making it difficult for them to appeal if they are refused a renewed card.
The fact the files are no longer accessible came to light after the outgoing Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly investigated complaints from people who were previously in receipt of discretionary medical cards, but were now being refused them.
The revelation came as new figures showed the number of discretionary cards have fallen from 80,000 to 56,000 since the Fine Gael/Labour coalition took power in 2011.
Speaking at the launch of her annual report for 2012, Ms O'Reilly, who takes up the post of European Ombudsman next week after a decade as Irish Ombudsman, said her office had noticed a "tightening of schemes".
She said officials were now more likely to follow the "letter of the law" and did not "exercise discretion" when dealing with applications.
While investigating complaints, the Ombudsman sought access to the previous case files of patients from the Primary Care Reimbursement Service (PCRS), the service for medical card applications, which was set up in 2005.
Her office wanted to see on what basis the discretionary cards were issued in the past and compare them with the reasons for the more recent decisions not to renew the cards.
However, the Ombudsman was told by the PCRS that the old files were no longer available after the service was centralised in 2011.
Ms O'Reilly said this had hampered appeals. She said officials did not appear to be looking at a person's circumstances in the same way as before if they earned slightly above the limits allowed.
The officials were not looking "at the reality of that particular person's illness, the cost of the medication, appliances (and) physiotherapies".
She said: "It causes incredible stress for people running around trying to access what they firmly believe they are entitled to. They cannot understand why they no longer have such an entitlement."
Ms O'Reilly said that, in particular, motor neuron disease sufferers were finding it difficult to access cards they would previously have qualified for.
"It is a form of rationing, but nobody owns up to it. Nobody says we are doing this," she said
"There may be a political cost to being clear about these things, but the cost to individuals is enormous."
She said financial constraints faced by public bodies due to austerity and cuts were "not an excuse for poor service, for inequitable treatment (or) for denial of rights".
The Ombudsman also lamented that the long-term illness card previously given to people diagnosed with ADHD or autism had been suspended pending the outcome of a review of the scheme.
The medical card complaints were among 3,412 made to the Ombudsman last year, a figure slightly down on 2011.
The public bodies which received the most complaints were the Department of Social Protection and the HSE, which Ms O'Reilly pointed out dealt with huge numbers of people on a daily basis.
Around 50 complaints are currently being examined against SUSI, the third-level grants body.