Prescription fee may rise further
Harney won't rule out raising 50c charge for medical card holders in future
Health Minister Mary Harney yesterday refused to rule out the possibility of raising the new 50c per item prescription charge for medical-card holders in the future despite claims it will cause hardship.
There are also no plans to extend the categories of people who are exempt from the charge or to allow homeless people who need routine medication to continue to get their drugs free.
The 50c charge per prescription item came into effect yesterday, although no family will have to pay more than €10 a month.
It drew mixed reactions from medical card holders who were having medicines dispensed -- many felt it was unfair on people who were dependent on social welfare allowances and pensions and already counted every cent they spent.
It was still unclear last night what action would be taken if a medical card holder refused to hand over the 50c for the drugs which may be essential to treat a life-threatening illness.
Asked if pharmacists should call gardai in that instance, a Health Service Executive (HSE) spokesperson replied: "The Health Act 2010 requires that a community pharmacist collects 50c for each prescribed item dispensed to medical card holders. No person or family will pay more than €10 per month."
Earlier, the Irish Pharmacy Union criticised the HSE for failing to have a public education campaign in advance of the start of the 50c prescription charge.
President Darragh O'Loughlin predicted it would cause confusion and said the "levy has faded from the public consciousness since it was first announced in last year's Budget".
He added: "We agree with the Health Minister that the wastage of medicines is a problem; however, we don't believe that imposing a levy on prescription medicines for medical card holders is the best way to tackle it.
"Prescription charges have been abolished in many other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland and Wales.
"This levy will cause hardship to many patients, particularly the homeless and those living in sheltered accommodation, and may even prevent certain patients from taking their medicines entirely.
"We would call on the Health Minister to exempt certain patient groups from paying the levy, including homeless patients, patients in sheltered accommodation and patients in nursing homes."
In reply, the HSE spokesperson said the agency wrote to pharmacists in July 2010 informing them of the introduction of the levy and advising them on what they needed to do to prepare for this.
"The HSE has distributed an information leaflet to all pharmacies and local health offices in recent weeks.
"A press advertisement confirming the introduction of the charge is in today's papers and an information line is available on 1890 252 919 and information on the levy is also available at www.medicalcard.ie."
Catherine Byrne, Fine Gael's spokeswoman for Older Citizens, said: "The minister and her advisers appear to have learnt nothing from the experience in Northern Ireland where the notion of prescription charges was dropped last April.
"The legislation gives the minister further control to increase the charge at a future date, thus eroding the value of the medical card for the sick and elderly."