NEARLY two-thirds of arthritis sufferers said their discretionary medical cards have been removed or put under review – leaving some unable to afford their medication.
Children who have the painful condition have been particularly badly hit and the removal or review of the cards has affected more than three-quarters (76pc) of them.
The extent of the cull emerged in a survey by support group Arthritis Ireland and follows the harrowing testimonies of other patient groups who have endured the same fate.
Arthritis affects 915,000 people – one in five people across the country – and many face significant bills for medication, therapies and appliances.
A quarter of 1,200 people with arthritis surveyed said they still have a discretionary card or previously held one.
However, as many as 60pc said it was withdrawn or placed under review as part of the HSE's bid to weed out those it deems are no longer eligible.
Nearly seven in 10 said the card was removed or reviewed in the last six months as the checks imposed by the HSE intensified.
Arthritis Ireland chief executive John Church said the measure was leaving people who lived with daily pain facing additional distress.
"We are calling on the Government to make good on their pre-election promises and take action to resolve this ongoing scandal," he said. "We are also urging the HSE to ensure arthritis patients on expensive treatments, such as hi-tech biologic therapies, are given medical cards straight away."
Health Minister James Reilly said last week the Cabinet sub-committee on health was examining issues which had arisen with cards but he could not provide detail on the options and warned it would be months before decisions were made.
Comments made by arthritis patients included claims that some have been unable to afford their medication since February.
One remarked: "I will not be able to afford to pay for meds and pay for the doctor and I am going into hospital for another knee replacement on June 18 and am so worried about the operation. I should not have this stress as well."
Another said: "It's been three months now and I've called every two weeks and still no decision. Without my medical card, I won't be able to afford the monthly infusions or daily meds I need to function.
"I'm so worried as without my medical card I won't get the treatment I need and will end up completely disabled."
Mr Church warned: "People with arthritis already face significant challenges living day-to-day with the severe pain and fatigue of arthritis and it is inhumane to place them under further financial hardship and distress.
"We are particularly concerned for families of children with juvenile arthritis as more than three-quarters have had their cards placed under review or taken away. Parents are facing totally unacceptable waiting list times of over 18 months to see a rheumatologist, despite the guidelines recommending a maximum of four to six weeks."
He added: "Although the Government has stated that there is no policy to cut discretionary medical cards, the results of our survey suggest otherwise."
Meanwhile, the HSE said it "does not require medical card applicants to provide proof of life-long conditions when a medical card falls due for renewal".
In a statement, it said people needed to provide information about any change in their medical circumstances, to assist in establishing eligibility.
It follows the testimony of many families, including parents of children with Down syndrome, who said they interpreted the question as asking them to prove their child still had a life-long condition.
The HSE insisted: "Requests for up-to-date medical information from applicants appears to be being misconstrued.
"Following recent commentary to this effect, the HSE has reviewed its written correspondence and telephone recordings and is satisfied that where medical information was sought from applicants it was done so appropriately and within the parameters of the medical card scheme."
It said that "medical card eligibility is based on a financial means assessment".
More than 1.9 million people hold a medical card or GP visit card and the HSE said it must operate within the legal parameters of the scheme.