Post-Brexit patients will be unable to get their surgery in UK
Patients in Ireland who are languishing on hospital waiting lists will lose out after Brexit, as a vital cross-Border treatment scheme becomes more difficult to access.
The scheme allows eligible patients in any EU country to avail of treatment outside the jurisdiction. They pay up front but get the costs reimbursed by their national health service.
Patients currently enjoy the convenience of going to the North or Britain for a range of treatments, including hip and knee surgery or cataract operations.
However, post-Brexit, while they will still be entitled to avail of the scheme, they will be confined to hospitals in mainland Europe, requiring more expensive travel costs and with potential language barriers.
The cross-Border directive has become an increasing safety valve for patients on waiting lists in the Republic.
Figures obtained by the Herald show the HSE has paid out €7.5m this year in reimbursements to 2,234 patients.
This compares to €2.4m for the whole of 2016 when less was known about the scheme. Most are going to the North, Wales, England and Poland.
Mark Regan, chief executive of Kingsbridge Hospital in Belfast, which has seen a big influx of these patients in recent years, said the scheme was now "mainstream".
Among the waiting list patients is Tom O'Riordan, who faced a delay of at least a year before getting a desperately needed hip operation at his local hospital.
He was able to arrange to have the surgery within weeks by travelling to the North. His family helped raise the €10,000, which is now reimbursed by the HSE.
He attended Kingsbridge Hospital, just a few hours' train journey from his home.
"I was suffering pain and my hip was so bad some days my wife Irene had to help me down the stairs," he told the Herald.
The ultimate sacrifice came when he had to give up his beloved golf and drop his membership of Newbridge Golf Course.
"I was admitted on the Monday and home by Wednesday afternoon," Mr O'Riordan said.
"My wife is a nurse so I have got the best of care."
He is back playing pitch and putt and expects to be on the golf course with his friends in the near future.
"It would be a shame if people had to go to mainland Europe," he added.