HSE probes one million medical card holders
MORE than a million medical cards will be inspected next year as part of the biggest ever crackdown to weed out people who are ineligible.
It means half of medical card holders in the country will be reviewed, with internal cross-checks carried out with the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners.
They include many of the 350,000 people over 70 years old with a card – around 35,000 of whom will be downgraded to a GP visit card.
Health Service Executive (HSE) chief Tony O'Brien announced the probe as he continued to face attack over the health authority's failure to properly manage the scheme.
Mr O' Brien, who was before the Dail Committee on Public Accounts, admitted that under the 1970 law setting up the scheme, people with a medical card who go over the income threshold are legally obliged to hand them back .
But he conceded that despite the scheme being in place for 43 years, the HSE is not yet ready to pursue anyone.
The HSE's failure to prosecute was criticised by Independent TD Shane Ross, who said it was effectively a "one-way bet" for anyone who has a card they are aware they are not entitled to.
"There is no deterrent. If you guys catch them, they just hand it back."
Earlier, the Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy said there was evidence to indicate there was a "material level" of medical card holders who are ineligible.
But it was not possible to say how much this is costing, he said.
The Department of Health has ordered the HSE to save €113m next year through medical card probity – but the committee was told this figure remained a guesstimate.
The HSE was due to produce its service plan for Health Minister James Reilly today, containing at least €666m in spending cuts for 2014.
But now it will not be able to deliver it for another two weeks.
The deciding criteria for a discretionary medical card is whether a person with an illness, who is over the eligibility limit, is facing "undue hardship", and it is not based on their medical condition.
Questioned on why so many people who were granted discretionary cards in the past are now having them axed, the HSE blamed the old system where applications were made locally.
John Hennessy, director of primary care, said they were trying to support a "small number" of people who had lost the benefit by advising them on where to go for healthcare. Questioned by the chairman of the committee, deputy Kieran O'Donnell, the HSE officials were unable to say how many cards reviewed so far were discretionary.
They were also unable to say what portion of applicants for a medical card were turned down.