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Patients with highest medicine bills will see gains as prescription charges are cut again

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PUBLIC and private patients who have the highest medicine bills are among the winners in this year's Budget.

The monthly threshold for the Drugs Payment Scheme - which covers 1.3 million people of all ages - will be cut by €10, reducing it to €114.

The prescription item charge for all medical card holders is coming down by 50c.

It will be €1 per item for the over-70s and €1.50 for other age groups from July.

The medical card income limit for the over-70s is also being changed and will be increased to €550 a week for a single person, allowing around 56,000 more people, who already have free GP care, to also have free medicines.

Currently 357,385 of the 426,331 people over 70 in the country have a medical card.

The promise is also to extend free GP visits to children under eight and free dental care to the under-sixes.

However, most of the these measures will not kick in until next summer or autumn.

Overall, the health service is getting €17.4bn in 2020 in current spending, a 6.3pc increase.

This amounts to an extra €1bn of which €335m is already spoken for to pay for this year's HSE overrun.

The Department of Health will get €854m in capital funding next year, €112m above the revised 2019 allocation.

The additional capital funding will have to pay for the ongoing construction costs of the €1.7bn new national children's hospital, primary care centres, updating of public nursing homes as well as hospital ward extensions and additional beds.

Hospital waiting lists, which include around 556,000 in the queue to see a specialist, are to get a cash injection of €100m.

The funding - which is €25m higher than 2019 - will go to the National Treatment Purchase Fund to pay for private care for public patients.

Although waiting lists for surgery have fallen this year, the numbers on outpatient lists have continued to escalate.

The Budget promises an extra one million homecare hours next year. It should mean around 19 million hours of care are available at a cost of some €481m.

But it comes against a background of a waiting list of more than 6,000 and a growing and ageing population.

The Fair Deal scheme, which subsidises nursing home care, is getting an extra €45m next year to cope with the increasing demand, with more than 24,000 people now being supported.

It was necessary to pump in more money in order to avoid the waiting time exceeding a month for a place in a nursing home.

Around €80m will go to GPs to provide more structured care to medical card patients with long-term conditions, including diabetes.

Mental health services will receive €1.03bn, an increase of €36m.

This is expected to see more investment in the new Vision for Change policy for the future of mental health services.

It remains to be seen how far this will go with inspectors' reports still showing a lack of proper therapies and services for many inpatients.

Next year the replacement for the Central Mental Hospital will open in Portrane in north Dublin.

The National Forensic Mental Health Service will provide care for up to 170 patients as well as referrals from the courts.

About 1,600 18-year-old school leavers who have disabilities are to be supported next year.

In line with Sláintecare, which aims to move more care out of hospitals, the Budget pledges to hire 1,000 more therapists, nurses and other professionals in the community over 2020 and 2021, at a full-year cost of €60m.

There is no particular reference to funding for hospital consultants' pay demands. They want an end to the €50,000 gap between new recruits and longer-serving colleagues.

It will be a matter for the Health Service Executive to draw up a service plan for 2020, which it will publish later this year, and this will have more detail on where the money will be spent as well as allocations to various services which it funds.

Irish Independent