MORE than 8,000 wealthy pensioners who have refused to hand back their medical cards can't be identified.
When the Government was forced into a partial U-turn in its plans to take away medical cards from pensioners on €700 a week, it still sent out letters to all 164,000 medical card holders aged over 70 asking them to voluntarily give up their card.
It expected to get back cards from 20,000 wealthy pensioners who had received them originally without any means test. But only 12,000 such pensioners voluntarily gave up their cards, meaning that up to 8,000 held on to them.
Health Minister James Reilly told officials over the summer that he wanted them to write to this group of wealthy pensioners to get their medical cards back. But it was discovered quickly afterwards that there was no way of identifying these people.
A government source said that the only option was to send another warning letter to every single medical card holder over 70.
"It would be a bad idea to send out a threatening letter to everyone over 70. I think that would cause a lot of concern," the source said.
It would risk a repeat of the controversy last January when the Revenue apologised for sending a mass letter to pensioners inquiring if they had a second undeclared pension.
And it is not even known if there are 8,000 wealthy pensioners over 70 with medical cards -- the source said this was just a "ballpark figure".
Rather than sending out letters, Dr Reilly is now concentrating on drawing up a paper for Cabinet to come up with ways to reduce the overall €2bn cost of medical cards in the Budget -- which could also impact on the over-70s.
It came on a day when the Government struggled to dampen down the coalition row after Fine Gael junior minister Brian Hayes said that "well-off" pensioners should be targeted in the Budget.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore warned ministers once more about worrying older people unnecessarily with speculation about the Budget.
The Government is also under pressure over the property tax, with both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein declaring their opposition yesterday.
And as the Dail returns from his summer break today, there is also a Fianna Fail motion of no confidence in Dr Reilly over his handling of the health budget crisis.
The Taoiseach said he would not go into any details of the Budget when asked about Mr Hayes's decision to put payments to pensioners on the table.
Speaking in Irish, he added that he would prefer ministers to concentrate on their portfolios.
Yesterday, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton again slapped down the comments of Mr Hayes about pensioners as being his "personal view".
"I'm slightly non-plussed at Minister Hayes's concentration on older people," she said.
Although she gave no guarantees on pension payments or the free-travel scheme remaining untouched, she said no Budget decisions had been made.
During an official visit to open new tearooms in Doneraile Park in Cork yesterday, Mr Hayes described the controversy as a "storm in a tea cup".
"What I said over the weekend is everything has to be on the table. If we are to get through this crisis we have got to do it in the fairest way possible and that applies to all income groups," he said.