€8m wasted on dead holders of medical cards
Social welfare minister pledges fresh clampdown
ALMOST €8m of taxpayers' money was wasted last year on payments to dead holders of medical cards, shocking new figures reveal.
According to documents shown to the Sunday Independent, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton's department made payments during 2010 to 9,850 people who were later found to be dead.
The figures were obtained by Fine Gael TD and member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Paschal Donohoe, who described the situation as a "terrible waste" of taxpayers' money.
"The thought that medical-card payments were going to dead people while those who are alive and need them most can't get them, shows the scale of challenge this system faces," he said.
"Reform is needed to allow decisions to be made more quickly and to ensure that payments are going to those who need them."
The revelations follow on from the recent disclosure by the chairman of the PAC, Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness, that the HSE wrongly paid €1.47m to GPs in respect of dead medical card holders.
"How can this happen, when it [the HSE] has no hesitation in sending debt collectors after vulnerable members of the public who owe it nickels and dimes?" Mr McGuinness asked.
Ms Burton told this newspaper yesterday that tackling overpayments like this was a key priority for her and that she would introduce tough new legislation if necessary to ensure the taxpayer was fully refunded.
"I have begun this new fraud initiative to stamp out this kind of thing," she said. "Things have improved significantly but cases are still happening. If needed, I will bring forward further legislation to minimise the exposure to the taxpayer in the social welfare bill. People must have trust in the system."
Ms Burton said those found to be overclaiming would see that debt retained on their records until it had been fully recovered. Their old-age pensions would also be reduced in order to pay back the debt.
"This will result in a reduction of all future entitlements, up to and including State pension. Following the death of a customer who owes a debt, the department continues to have a claim on any estate remaining," she said.
Overpayments generally arose as a result of "revised decisions on entitlement made by deciding officers", she explained.
"These officers decide the effective date of a revised decision, having regard to the new facts or new evidence and the circumstances of the case."
In the case of dead holders of medical cards, Ms Burton's department receives online notification of deaths from the General Registrar's Office (GRO) as soon as deaths are registered. The average value of overpaid benefits to deceased customers represents approximately one month's payment.
Usually the department is notified of the death by the next of kin within one month, or receives the information from the GRO.
Claims are generally terminated within one month of a recipient's death and any overpayments arising are assessed in a timely manner.
In 2010, the department recovered overpayments of over €7.8m from the estates of deceased pensioners.
It is to increase the level of debt recovery by reviewing the overall approach, particularly in the area of overpayments that have arisen from suspected social welfare fraud.