Wednesday 17 January 2018

Middle classes facing medical bills hike in €40m clawback

Fionnan Sheahan and Michael Brennan

MIDDLE-income families are facing higher medicine bills in a €40m Budget cutback.

The Irish Independent has learnt that the Government is considering changing the claiming structure of the Drugs Payment Scheme from monthly to quarterly. The scheme subsidises the cost of prescription drugs and over-the counter medicines.

Instead of getting free medicines after spending €120 per month -- the current threshold -- families would have to spend over €360 every three months before they could claim for free additional prescription drugs and medicines, under the proposed changes.

It would mean families spending less than €360 over three months would not get any money back from the State.

It is estimated that such a move would save €40m -- or 12pc of the current allocation to the Drugs Payment Scheme.

It would hit middle-income families who only claim for short-term illnesses a few months a year, rather than those with chronic conditions and ongoing high medicine bills

The move will not affect those on medical cards or long-term illness cards as they get the cost of their prescription drugs covered after paying a 50 cent per item fee. Families with constantly high medical costs would not lose out either.

But it's another blow to middle-class families who saw the drug treatment scheme threshold increased from €100 to €120 in last year's Budget. They have also endured curtailing of PRSI cover for dental treatment, and the scrapping of the higher rate tax relief on health expenses.

The proposed move comes as the Cabinet meets in Farmleigh House at 6pm today and holds an all-day meeting tomorrow to discuss the scale of cutbacks to be included in the December Budget -- with estimates ranging from €4bn to €7bn. A source close to Finance Minister Brian Lenihan dismissed reports of rising tensions between him and Taoiseach Brian Cowen, saying he did not recall relations ever being better.


"They are talking every day. There's a common purpose," he said.

Children's Minister Barry Andrews said the choices for the Government were going to be "very difficult" in the health sector, as well as in social welfare and education.

"It is going to be painful for people in receipt of welfare. It may have a detrimental effect on some of our educational provisions," he told RTE's 'Week in Politics'.

Although Health Minister Mary Harney is understood to be reluctant to alter the Drugs Payment Scheme, the change from claiming per month to claiming every three months is on a list of possible cutback measures submitted by the Department of Health.

A source close to Ms Harney said the minister would be aware of the impact of families.

"Some people would find it difficult to meet the €360 threshold. This wouldn't be top of the list at all. It would be regarded as severe on people," the source said.

But a coalition source confirmed cuts to all spending on medicines were "still in the frame", including the change to drugs scheme.

The Drugs Payment Scheme will cost €326m this year. Figures from the Health Service Executive show that last year, 4,983,192 claims for 13,452,415 prescriptions were made under the scheme.

To the end of August this year, 3,353,456 claims were made for 9,087,856 items.

Irish Independent

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