Harney to blame for card fiasco: Lenihan
UNDER-FIRE Finance Minister Brian Lenihan last night laid the blame for the over-70s medical card debacle on his cabinet colleague Mary Harney.
As he hinted at a climbdown on the controversy, it emerged that those who lose their full cards face a potential cost of almost €2,000 a year. With the Government facing mounting public anger and the prospect of a revolt from its own backbenchers, Mr Lenihan said Ms Harney personally took the decision to vary the "arrangements in relation to the medical cards".
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Lenihan said he had "no doubt" Ms Harney would correct any "anomalies" in the scheme. Significantly, he said the Government had another 10 weeks before the change was due to come into effect, in January.
"The position is that an estimate has been provided for the Minister for Health and Children this year, out of which she has decided to vary the arrangements in relation to the medical cards, with the support of the Government," he said.
"It is not an issue in the Finance Bill, it is not for legislation in the Finance Bill, it is not a tax measure on foot of the budget; it is an expenditure decision arrived at by the Government."
Mr Lenihan pointed out that the details of the new medical card arrangements for the over-70s had yet to be finalised. But he stressed the changes were going to save €100m.
"Clearly, we have until January 1 to work out decisions and I have no doubt that if there are any anomalies that can be corrected, the minister will address them."
In a new twist, it was claimed last night that stricter eligibility criteria are also being imposed on the 140,000 non-means-tested medical-card holders, who are now in danger of losing the benefit.
Labour Party spokeswoman on health Jan O'Sullivan said the threshold for a couple applying for a means-tested medical card in this group is €298.
This is only half the amount a couple who are over 70 are allowed to earn under normal medical-card eligibility criteria, she claimed.
The normal cut-off point is €596.50 for a husband and wife where one of them is applying for a full medical card.
Medical card applicants are assessed on different income levels, depending on whether they are single or married. The threshold for a married couple is higher than for a single person.
"These people are subjected to more stringent criteria than ever before," she added.
Ms Harney last night denied that a more stringent means test had been introduced.
The full scale of the implications of the over-70s fiasco was becoming clearer last night.
Loss of a full card leaves the older person liable for GP fees, medicine bills, A&E charges and overnight public-hospital bed charges.
Although much will depend on the older person's state of health, their yearly medical bill could soar if they lose these benefits.
Five GP visits a year would cost around €300; and if they have high medicine bills, they will have to fork out €100 a month, amounting to €1,200 a year.
An A&E visit would set them back €100. And if they have to be admitted for tests or an operation to a public hospital, they would have to pay a further €75 a night, up to an annual maximum ceiling of €750 -- the equivalent of a 10-night stay in hospital.