Former health ministers Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin will face questions this week over historic evidence the State had no legal basis to charge families for the care of their elderly relatives.
It emerged over the weekend that to make restitution to all families affected would have cost the State around €13bn.
Sinn Féin wants answers to what the two men knew and when, after leaked internal government papers appeared to show a determination to force people to sue for compensation, rather than coming forward with redress.
The leaked documentation, published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, includes a battery of memos relating to a legal strategy apparently aimed at minimising the cost to the State – while leaving some people impoverished by the care bills illegally charged.
The problem goes back to the realisation that there may not have been any legal underpinning for charging patients for state-sponsored care in nursing homes – with doubts evident 20 years ago and possibly more. The remedy was the creation of the Fair Deal scheme by Mary Harney. But her immediate predecessor as minister for health was Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.
A whistleblower provided the newspaper with a dossier indicating the €13bn figure. In order to avoid such a huge outlay, it is alleged a strategy was developed to bury the lack of a legal basis, or at least assert that legality could be upheld by a court, meaning liability was effectively denied.
Hundreds of court actions were nonetheless taken, with the strategy seeing the State resist any admission.
Only when families had reached the point where the process of discovery was imminent – when the State would have to release all relevant papers in its possession – were settlements pursued. In such cases, the amounts quietly paid reflected between 40-60pc of the amounts sought.
No individual cases reached court to establish liability in the manner subsequently pioneered by Vicky Phelan in the cervical cancer scandal.
“This means that the State took advantage of people of low income, who had been affected by paying illegal charges, and who didn’t then have the means to sue,” said Sinn Féin spokesman on health David Cullinane.
The issue will now be raised in the Dáil this week, with Mr Cullinane calling on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to make statements.
There has been no immediate response to the claims of a secret strategy to deny families full access to refunds of illegal nursing home charges.
But it was known across Leinster House at the turn of this century that there was at least a question mark about whether any charges should have been made because they lacked legal authorisation. Many of those billed had full medical cards.
Mr Cullinane called on the Government to release all related documents to provide full transparency after one of the leaked memos said “confidentiality has been a central element of the legal strategy”.