Discretionary medical card numbers up 60pc since reviews stopped
The number of people with discretionary medical cards has risen 60pc since this time last year - when the Government suffered an angry backlash in the polls over the removal of cards from many sick and disabled people.
However, despite the easing of rules, the process of application can still be slow and delays of several months in obtaining a card have been reported by some families caring for sick children.
New figures obtained by the Irish Independent show 83,450 full medical cards are issued on a discretionary basis to people who have a medical need, but are over the income limit.
This compares with 52,232 in May last year when the HSE regime sparked public outrage and cost the Government votes in the May European elections.
The HSE had been ordered by the Government in 2011 to impose new national guidelines and end the ad-hoc manner in which discretionary cards had been previously given by local health offices. But this led to many cases of hardship.
It was only after last year's European elections that the Government eventually bowed to public anger and decided to do a belated U-turn, ordering that the reviews be stopped.
It said anyone who lost the card after a review from mid-2011 should get it back. It was expected around 15,000 would benefit but, due to people recovering from illness or dying, around 12,000 were restored.
Currently another 35,000 people have discretionary GP visit cards, which means they can see the doctor for free but pay for medicines. It compares with 31,565 this time last year.
A number of measures have been put in place, including a wider panel of doctors to assess an applicant's illness.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said all reviews of discretionary medical cards were still suspended.
Reviews are not expected to resume until the Clinical Advisory Group, which was set up earlier this year to come up with ways of improving discretion for those with medical need, has reported.
A spokesman for the Our Children's Health group, which has campaigned for more cards for sick children, said they had seen "a reasonable improvement in the level of discretion being exercised, particularly over the last few months.
"It is fair to say that there are far fewer cases that are turned down out-right,"he said.
"However, the application process is no less onerous than before."
GPs also report an improvement but say some patients are enduring long delays before the card comes through. Dr Kevin Kelly, a GP in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, said he believesd from his own experience that it was now easier for people with illness to get a discretionary medical card.
However, he added: "The process can be very slow. That can be difficult for people with illnesses who need one in order to help meet their expenses."
A spokesman for Health Minister Leo Varadkar added that without universal coverage, there would always be some people above a threshold - but every effort was made to support applicants.