THE number of over-70s who have been sent letters reviewing their eligibility for a medical card has risen to 53,000, it has emerged.
Junior Health Minister Alex White said the over-70s had been chosen to prove their eligibility for a medical card "based on data from the Department of Social Protection and Revenue Commissioners".
Around 35,000 of this age group will lose their medical card and get a GP-visit card instead, following a tightening of eligibility criteria in the Budget.
The targeting of so many pensioners will add fuel to criticism of the manner in which the HSE is stepping up its pursuit of people who may no longer be eligible for the benefit.
Mr White, in a series of parliamentary replies, said the HSE was extending the time from three to four months from the point at which it sends out the review letter to the person of any age who has a discretionary card.
"This is to allow an additional month to ensure that all pertinent medical and other data is provided for inclusion in the assessment process," he said.
"Additional information will be provided to those who lose out on a discretionary card and local information points will be established at major health centres around the country, where members of the public can obtain comprehensive information and support in accessing their full range of supports and entitlements from the health services," he said.
Mr White insisted that the HSE "makes every effort to provide a person with sufficient time to renew their eligibility".
He said that while the number of medical cards issued where discretion was involved had fallen in recent years, it was not as a result of a change in policy or a deliberate targeting of discretionary cards.
"Rather, it is attributable, in the main, to the fact that many people, who previously were marginally over the qualifying means thresholds, have subsequently been granted medical cards because they now fall under those means thresholds."
Mr White added: "Of the discretionary cards in circulation in 2011, less than one-10th have been found to be ineligible for a medical card on review."