Just 80,000 will benefit from Coalition's medical card U-turn
The Government's decision to suspend the review of discretionary medical cards will only benefit around 80,000 people – leaving one million, including pensioners, still facing a crackdown this year.
Despite the rowback, the thousands of patients who have lost their discretionary cards will not have them restored unless there is a specific change in the law.
The Government decided to call a halt to the removal of the discretionary medical cards in the wake of the backlash over sick people losing their cards.
The HSE has confirmed the suspension of the medical cards review only applies to review letters and people with a discretionary card which is up for renewal will continue to have to prove they are still eligible.
The move follows Taoiseach Enda Kenny's pledge to "fix that problem" around discretionary medical cards and people receiving letters from the HSE threatening to remove their card.
There are 1.8 million people covered by a medical card, 50,375 of which were granted on a discretionary basis.
Another 124,166 have a GP visit card and 29,481 of these are discretionary. But the overall review of one million medical cards this year will continue.
Junior Health Minister Alex White yesterday attempted to quell the public backlash against the Government sparked by the removal of discretionary medical cards.
Mr White said the Cabinet sub-committee on health had instructed that review letters, which were being sent by the HSE to discretionary medical card holders, should stop.
An expert group will also be set up to examine the "range of medical conditions" that would qualify for a medical card but legislation will be needed to give effect to this.
Currently, medical card eligibility is based on means, but a discretionary card can be issued where somebody is assessed as over the income limit but facing undue financial hardship due to their illness.
New legislation will have to allow for a card to be given to people based on a particular illness – but this will inevitably draw more criticism as not all conditions can be included.
The Government attempted a similar exercise last year, but found it wasn't possible to enshrine such eligibility in legislation.
Mr White said the department has also been "mandated to develop a policy paper on the further rollout of GP care free at the point of access in the context of the move to universal healthcare insurance".
However, the HSE will continue to issue review letters to almost one million other card holders this year, including the over-70s who will have them removed if they fail to qualify under new income limits introduced in the last Budget.
Independent TD Denis Naughten said the Government's suspension of reviews would only bring relief to about 4pc of people with a discretionary medical card who would be ineligible. He said the vast majority of those on discretionary cards, which are only issued for six months or a year, would "still have to run the gauntlet" of trying to have their card renewed when it comes to their expiry day.
Several patient groups were already insisting last night that they should be included in the list of illnesses to automatically qualify for a medical card when the new system is in place, including the Irish Cancer Society and Arthritis Ireland.
Asked what would happen to people who lost their discretionary card while the expert group and legislation was in process, a spokeswoman said they may have them restored after the law has been changed.
"In the meantime, the majority of those who have lost their medical card following a review will have been granted a GP visit card or will be registered on the long-term illness scheme," she added.