Easing the recession-era price increases would help reduce pressure on families
The countdown to the Budget is under way, but it is still not too late for the Government to respond to the alarming trend that emerged yesterday showing households are cutting back on GP spending and dental care as they endure the ever-rising spiral in health insurance premiums.
No doubt chilled by the ongoing rise in public hospital waiting lists for surgery or an outpatient appointment, people are feeling they have no option but to cling to their health insurance.
But in order to meet the premium, which now averages €1,200 a year, they are sacrificing a visit to the GP or overdue dental work. This form of budget management carries risks and there is the danger of missing out on vital checks.
Trinity College health economists point out that since 2009-2010 the cost of prescription charges and overnight stays as a public patient in hospital have also gone up. These were increased to generate more revenue for the health service.
The economists termed them part of the austerity hikes. Apart from additional tax relief for health insurance premiums there appears little the Government can do to stem the rising costs of private cover.
However, if officials in the Department of Finance want to see some financial reprieve for the many thousands who are enduring this financial squeeze, it is within their power to ease some of the recession-era price increases which people have borne for too long.
One Budget measure that could make a difference would be reducing the drug payment scheme cost of €144 a month, which private patients with heavy medication costs have to pay. There should also be room to reduce the prescription charge for medical card holders further.
Last year's Budget cut the charge from €2.50 to €2, but only for the over-70s. It has been called a tax on the sick and is past its relevance. The last Fine Gael-led government promised to abolish it.
The overnight hospital charge for a public patient, which was hiked to €80, should also be looked at. PRSI holders are due to have the free scale and polish of teeth, and free glasses from opticians, restored by the end of this year, but the benefits are still far behind those which could be claimed pre-recession.
We are a long way from reaching the utopian vision of universal healthcare. But there is scope to reduce the healthcare pressures being felt by many households.