Thursday 18 January 2018

1.67m medical card holders can’t afford €50 tax – patients

Health Minister Dr James Reilly
Sarah Stack

Sarah Stack

MEDICAL charges for the most vulnerable in society will cost lives, it was claimed today. The Irish Patients Association said there are approximately 1.67 million medical card holders in the country, including 20,000 new people signed on in the 18 months to May of this year.

IPA chief executive Stephen McMahon said the average cost of a card per patient in 2009 was €302.50, adding the proposed charges for medical cards would raise €74 million next year.

"These charges and additional taxes on medical cards, prescription charges and access to private nursing home beds will cost lives and create a strain on the public acute hospital system that may indeed grind it to a halt with more chronically sick patients," he added.

"Ireland must protect its values of social solidarity for the most vulnerable in our society."

Extra fees for medical card holders, along with nursing home bed closures, would be shocking for the 1.4 million citizens who cannot afford to pay for private care, the IPA said.

The proposals were a matter of patient safety of the highest priority, Mr McMahon said.

"The Government is ultimately accountable for the safety of the patients that will be affected by these proposed charges if they are implemented.".

Health Minister James Reilly is considering a range of measures including a €50 annual charge for medical cards and increasing the €50 prescription item charge.

Elsewhere he is looking at closing 40 community nursing homes and asking people to pay some money towards home care.

The cuts could secure around €500 million worth of savings in the health budget.

When appointed as health minister, Dr Reilly had promised to abolish the prescription charge.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny repeated no budget decisions have been made and also said the opposition have already been invited to put forward alternatives for the budget.

"I understand exactly the quality and the challenge that frontline staff and carers and workers in community hospitals have to face," he said.

"But I'm also a realist. Many of these buildings are very old, many require pretty serious refurbishment, many require costly maintenance and upkeep."

Mr Kenny said the Government was reviewing all aspects of the community hospitals in the best interests of the patients as part of normal budget planning.

Micheal Martin, of Fianna Fail, accused the Government of codology and claimed the Taoiseach was denying TDs the chance to engage in budget matters.

"You are involved, and your ministers, in a deeply cynical practice of raising all sorts of issues, frightening the living daylights out of people around the country, and then coming up with the cynical line 'we signed off on nothing'," Mr Martin said.

"You are codding no one as far as I'm concerned.

"I wanted a straight answer and these community hospital units in terms of the quality of care in my view are far superior in how they look after high dependency patients than anything you will get in the private sector."

Caoimhghin O Caolain, Sinn Fein health spokesman, said deliberate leaks about the Budget are designed to soften up the public for more health cuts.

"These are recipes for disaster for the old, the sick and those on low incomes," Mr O Caolain said.

"Some or all of these cuts may be imposed in the Budget. What is certain is that the deliberate leaks from the meeting are designed to soften up public opinion in an effort to prepare people for the worst in the hope that cuts short of the worst may appear more palatable."

Eamon Timmins, Age Action spokesman, said the proposed cuts would be an unprecedented attack on some of the most vulnerable.

"The scale of the threatened cuts is shocking and is totally unacceptable," he said.

"The brunt of the cuts would be borne by the sickest and poorest of older people who are at a stage of life, on low fixed incomes and with health needs, where they are dependent on the state for essential services."

Pharmacists also raised concerns over Budget proposals to quadruple prescription charges from 50 cent to €2 and introduce a charge for the medical card.

Darragh O'Loughlin, president of the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU), said: "An increase of this magnitude could present a significant barrier for people who are already facing real financial hardship and would lead to many of these patients simply not taking the medicines prescribed for them.

"Even the current 50 cent levy has given rise to difficulties for some vulnerable patients.

"Any increase in costs would increase the number of patients struggling to continue taking their medicines."

The IPU called for vulnerable patients to be exempt from the levy, including patients in residential care settings, with intellectual disabilities, on methadone programmes, receiving psychiatric medicines, those who are homeless and palliative care patients.

"In extreme cases some patients are choosing not to take their medication at all," Mr O'Loughlin added.

"If people don't comply with their medicine regimes, it could end up costing the state more."

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