Friday, 12 December 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Máire Hoctor): The Health Bill 2008 gives effect to recent Government decisions to end the automatic entitlement to a medical card, irrespective of income, for people aged 70 and over and to introduce new arrangements in order that 19 out of every 20 persons who are 70 years and more will continue to have medical cards under a new income threshold.
For those who are aged 70 or more on 31 December 2008 and who have non-means tested medical cards, there will be no new means test. For those who turn 70 in the new year, there will be a much simplified means test compared with that applying for the standard medical card scheme, which has been designed to show that——
Deputy Máire Hoctor: For those who turn 70 in the new year, there will be a much simplified means test compared with that applying for the standard medical card scheme, which has been designed to show that their gross income is below the new limits. The new arrangements proposed in this Bill will deliver on the Government’s dual objective of prioritising the provision of medical cards to those most in need, while at the same time achieving a more financially sustainable scheme for persons aged 70 and over.
In particular, these arrangements will enable the ending of the very high capitation fee for GPs that has been paid since 2001 only in respect of over 70 year olds, who received a medical card by virtue of age, rather than means. This payment had the distinction of being discriminatory, inequitable and financially unsustainable. It was paid in respect of approximately 38% of people aged 70 and over. I welcome again the recommendation of Mr. Eddie Sullivan of a single fee capitation level of €290, which we intend to implement from 1 January.
Under existing legislation, the objective of the general medical services, GMS, scheme is to ensure that the medical card benefit is available to those who are unable, without undue hardship, to meet the cost of health services for themselves and their dependants.
People aged 70 years and over are more likely to require regular access to health services and it is appropriate that additional support is put in place to enable their access to medical care. At the same time, it is consistent with the general approach of the GMS for many years and with the need to provide for financially sustainable schemes, that the medical card should be provided to all but the top 5% of income earners among the over 70s. There are, and will continue to be, pressing calls on scarce resources to meet the needs of many people across the whole range of health services.
Fortunately, people in Ireland are living longer and healthier lives. This is due in no small part to better health services and the higher living standards as a result of economic growth. We also have at present the youngest population in Europe, with only approximately 11% of people over 65. This will change in the years ahead as our population ages and lives longer. While we welcome this as a nation, we need to plan for it in every respect, including Exchequer commitments which it will entail.
The number of people over 70 is projected to grow to 363,000 by 2011, 433,000 by 2016 and to 535,000 by 2021. We need to plan for, and provide, many health services for the people now aged about 55 and over who will form the over 70s group at that time and use public resources in the most effective and fairest way to provide those services. In that context, the continuation of the automatic medical card, and the associated high capitation fee paid for it, does not represent prudent or fair financial planning.
I now propose to briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 3 provides for the replacement of section 45(5A) of the Health Act 1970 which provided, since 2001, for an automatic entitlement to a medical card for all persons aged 70 years and over who are ordinarily resident in the State, irrespective of their means.
The old section 45(5A) is replaced by this new section 45(5A) which provides that those people who are 70 or over before 1 January 2009 and who had full eligibility on age grounds will continue to have full eligibility — the medical card is evidence of full eligibility — so long as their gross income from all sources does not exceed the specified limits.
A person who had automatic entitlement to a medical card and, therefore, full eligibility, by virtue of the old section 45(5A) will continue to have full eligibility until 2 March 2009. Consequently, all persons can continue to use their medical cards as normal up to 2 March next, even if their gross income exceeds the relevant income limits set out in this legislation.
Section 4 provides for the insertion of a new section 45A in the Act of 1970 dealing with the eligibility of persons aged 70 and over, and their dependants, for a medical card from 1 January 2009. It provides that people reaching 70 on or after 1 January must make an application to the HSE and, provided they meet the income and other criteria, that is, age and ordinary residency, they will receive a medical card. They will receive confirmation from the HSE that they have full eligibility and they will continue to have full eligibility so long as their gross income does not exceed the limit.
Although the application process for a medical card under these arrangements is a much simplified one, the Minister, Deputy Harney, is conscious that for some people in this category the process may prove arduous. As a consequence, she accepted a Committee Stage Fine Gael amendment that the HSE shall provide any necessary supports to any person making an application for a medical card under this section, whereby they need it by reason of incapacity.
This section also covers people who have already reached 70 prior to 1 January 2009, but who, for a variety of reasons, may not have applied for a medical card under section 45(5A) of the Health Act 1970, which provided for automatic entitlement to a medical card for all persons aged 70 and over.
The Government has been concerned at all times in these new arrangements to ensure that a person aged 70 or over would not lose his or her medical card as an immediate consequence of the death of his or her spouse. For that reason the Minister brought forward an amendment, to this section, on Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann to ensure that a person aged 70 or over would not lose his or her medical card as an immediate consequence of the death of his or her spouse. The amendment provides that a person aged 70 or over whose spouse dies on or after 1 January 2009 will retain the medical card for a period of three years at the couple limit of €1,400 provided the person remains within that limit. As outlined by the Minister, Deputy Harney, in her speech yesterday, this option offers the best solution in terms of what is possible from a non-discrimination point of view as between widowed persons and single persons. Finally, this section provides that dependants of persons covered in this section and section 45(5A) will also have full eligibility.
The gross income limits which will apply under this Bill from 1 January 2009 are as follows. For single persons, the gross income limits are €700 per week, excluding income from savings or similar investments whose capital value does not exceed €36,000. The gross income limits are €1,400 per week for a couple, that is, people who are married or living together as husband and wife, excluding income from savings or similar investments whose capital value does not exceed €72,000. The couple limit of €1,400 will also apply where the spouse or partner is under 70.
This section requires that the Minister review the consumer price index, CPI, annually on 1 September and provides that the gross income limits may be increased to reflect any increase in the index. The Minister gave assurances in the Dáil yesterday that these income limits will not be reduced in response to less favourable economic circumstances and advised that the Government would endeavour to ensure that the income guidelines continue to match the cost of living standards of the day.
The Bill makes provision for the exclusion of income, and interest earned thereon, arising from certain compensation awards payable by the State, as follows: compensation awards to persons under the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal Acts, 1997 to 2006; compensation awards by way of the Residential Institutions Redress Board; prescribed repayments made under section 8 of the Health (Repayment Scheme) Act 2006 made to a living relevant person, to the spouse or former spouse of a living or deceased relevant person, or directly to a living child of a relevant person by virtue of section 9(8) of that Act; and ex gratia awards approved by the Lourdes Hospital Redress Board. It further provides that the Minister may make regulations prescribing further payments made for similar purposes also to be excluded as income for the purposes of this Bill.
This section also gives effect to the Government’s commitment not to impute income from property. For the purposes of assessing gross income under this Bill, income will not be imputed from any property, whether it is a family home, a holiday home or any other property, unless it is rented, and only the net rental income, calculated as gross income less any costs necessarily associated with the rental of the property, will be included for this purpose.
Sections 5 and 6 are technical amendments which amend sections 47 and 47A, respectively, of the Act of 1970 to provide for the new section 45A being inserted in the Act by this Bill. The amendment to section 47 provides that the appeals process available to persons under section 45 of the Act will also now apply to persons over 70 qualifying for a medical card under this Bill. The amendment to section 47A provides that guidelines on “Ordinarily resident in the State” issued for the purposes of assisting the determination of an appeal under section 47 shall also apply to persons qualifying for a medical card under this Bill.
Section 7, the amendment of section 49 of the Act of 1970, provides that people who are 70 years of age before 1 January and who hold a medical card on the basis of automatic eligibility under section 45(5A) prior to the enactment of this Bill, shall notify the HSE, no later than 2 March 2009, if they have concluded that their income exceeds the gross income limits.
The Government wants to ensure that the process of self-assessment required under this provision will be much simplified compared to that required under the existing hardship-based scheme. Consequently, the HSE has been asked to ensure that any assistance that a person may need on self-assessment will be made available by it on an administrative basis.
Subsection (b) amends subsection (2) of section 49 of the Act of 1970, such that the provisions applicable to a person who knowingly contravenes the requirement set out in subsection (1) to notify the HSE of any change in the circumstances that entitle him or her to a service provided by the HSE under the Health Acts, shall also apply to persons qualifying for a medical card under this Bill. The purpose of this section is to amend section 4 of the Health Contributions Act 1979 to provide an exemption from the health contribution for any person who is over the age of 70 or reaches that age on or after 1 January 2009. The amendment will exempt everybody over 70 from paying the contribution regardless of whether they fall into the existing categories exempted under section 11 of the 1979 Act.
Sections 9 and 10 are technical amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 so that the existing statutory provisions on the sharing of information between public bodies, which already apply to section 45 of the 1970 Act, shall now also apply to section 45(A) of that Act as amended by this Bill. Section 11 is a technical amendment to ensure that the existing statutory provision in relation to the sharing of information between the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages and the HSE, which already applies to section 45 of the 1970 Act, shall now also apply to section 45(A) of that Act as amended by this Bill.
This Bill is designed to give effect to the Government’s decision to replace the automatic entitlement to a medical card for persons aged 70 and over with a new arrangement based on gross income limits. Under the new arrangement, the limits are set at a sufficiently high rate to ensure that the majority of people aged 70 and over will continue to qualify for a medical card. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to hearing the views of Senators.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I regret that we must discuss this ill thought-out legislation because of the Government’s failure to see the error of its ways. This Bill more than anything else has taken away the peace of mind of our elderly citizens, who contributed hugely to this society and who hoped to have the peace of mind that the medical card offered. The Minister of State acknowledged that increasing age often brings increased ill health and reliance on medical services.
There is no doubt that the decision by the Government to introduce the medical card for everyone over the age of 70 was a poorly thought-out political stroke. It was badly negotiated by the Government on behalf of the taxpayer, with the result that it was expensive. However, it turned out to be a significant support for our elderly population. It gave peace of mind to people who were on the verge of entering nursing homes and provided critical support in terms of access to services such as physiotherapists and GPs and to necessary medicines. It helped people to stay in their own homes. There is increasing evidence to indicate that withdrawing it at this stage will tilt the balance towards institutional care rather than care in the community.
Faced with increased costs, elderly people will decide against visiting their doctors or reviewing their medication. They will be cautious about putting their health first because they will have less money. The elderly person with bronchitis or a bad cough, who will not attend a GP to be prescribed antibiotic treatment, may end up being admitted to an accident and emergency department.
The Bill defeats certain aims of Government policy, such as the supposed focus on community care and keeping people out of nursing homes. In regard to the cost implications, I have no doubt that the Government would save money by leaving the medical card in place. Additional costs will be created through nursing home fees and the greater expense of institutional care and hospital beds. This is a short-sighted measure, therefore.
It is ironic that the Minister of State stated that almost everybody will retain their medical card. Where are the savings if that is the case? Savings could instead be made in drug schemes and through negotiations with GPs. Eamon Timmins of Age Action Ireland expressed his extreme disappointment at seeing the Bill being pushed through the Dáil yesterday by Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats. He stated:
I spoke previously in this House about universal benefits. This is not about benefiting the wealthy, it is about making sure that people’s needs are met by the State’s services and that the Exchequer makes up in other ways the shortfalls in funding. Those who have the greatest needs are guaranteed services. Fine Gael supports universal health care because it is better at meeting the needs of our citizens than any other system.
When this proposal was made in the budget, there was widespread panic and confusion among older people, their families and their carers. The subsequent U-turns which introduced a variety of medical eligibility criteria only added to their concern. What is the Minister of State’s estimate of the savings that will be made by taking the medical card from this group of people? Has the broader issue of institutional care been considered? Where will this attack on universality end? This year, it is the medical card for older people, but what will be next, given that the principle has changed?
The generation who will be hit by this Bill comprises people who contributed constructively to Irish society. A savings exemption is being introduced, but a couple who took out insurance policies may breach the exemption if one partner dies, even if the insurance money was intended to pay for nursing care. As long as such people remain in their homes, they will lose their medical cards because they have set aside money for nursing home care. It is short-sighted to catch out the people who have tried to make independent provision.
I have set out the reasons my party opposes the effort to remove the medical card from older people. Issues also arise in respect of the bureaucracy that will be needed to administer the new arrangements. It is difficult to know the Minister of State’s precise intention for the new means test for older people who have to reapply for cards. What exactly will they be asked to do? Will they have to write a letter outlining their position or complete a simple form, and how does that differ from the current means test? There is much concern and anxiety about this and people are very worried about losing the card.
I spoke to people who have expenses for GPs, medication, incontinence pads, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and outpatient visits. These people, who may be retired teachers or public servants, may be just over the limits as set out. The costs they will have to face, as outlined earlier, may well be a deterrent to getting the kind of care they need, and they will be put in a much more vulnerable position. Will the Minister of State clarify what exactly the people will be required to do and the type of form they will be required to complete in the new year?
I will comment on how the legislation is being dealt with. It was rammed through the Dáil yesterday and guillotined. It is very unsatisfactory that we have had so little time to consider the debate in the Dáil yesterday and the various points that were made. A number of constitutional points were made about the changes to the legislation and the impact of taking the card away, for example, from a widow or widower after three years. That is the Minister’s attempt to ensure people are not left in a dreadful plight when one partner dies.
If this legislation was dealt with normally, there would be time for the Minister to go to the Attorney General, look at this issue and come back to inform the Seanad of the findings. I assume the Minister of State does not have any more legal advice in this regard. If she has more information on the issues raised yesterday, she might share it with the House. As it is not in the script, I assume there is no new legal information.
Serious points were made yesterday in the Dáil about the declaratory principle, which, as I understand it, was brought in for the first time. Neither my colleagues nor I had heard of the declaratory principle being used as a reason to exclude a Minister from having to report to a House about developments in legislation. I assume it was used yesterday by the Ceann Comhairle under legal advice and the Bill was then guillotined. We are in the same position today as the legislation is on Second Stage in the Seanad. There will be a half hour break to put down Committee Stage amendments and then it will be rushed through again.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I can understand why it would not want more scrutiny or delay. The Government wants to rush it through because it is unjust and it does not want it to undergo the sort of scrutiny it deserves. Therefore, the Government is doing what it did towards the end of this term in the Dáil and Seanad. It is bad parliamentary practice which is bad for the legislation and for older people, who will bear the brunt of the decisions arising from this legislation.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: This comes at a time when all sorts of other actions are being taken by the Government that will create significant problems for the elderly. I spoke yesterday to a person on the front line dealing with people in a hospital and I was told there were 60 people waiting for community care packages in Tallaght hospital and there are vetoes on community care packages in a number of areas, despite what has been said in the House. People cannot get out of hospital, or indeed into hospital sometimes, to take up residence in their homes because of a lack of community care packages.
We have a range of questions about this legislation which we will raise on Committee Stage. I do not have the time to go into them now but there is no doubt my colleagues will address some of the many other concerns we have about the implications of the legislation.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House this morning. I am delighted to have an opportunity to have a few minutes to contribute to the debate on the Health Bill 2008. There is no doubt that this is very important legislation. It is fair to say, after listening to my colleague, Senator Frances Fitzgerald, that the Bill will not have a very smooth passage through the Upper House today.
Everybody is keenly aware of the current economic climate. The first item on the news this morning was the Minister for Finance telling us that the first half of 2009 will be even bleaker than we imagined. Having listened to Senator Frances Fitzgerald this morning, the Opposition must enter the real world and be aware of the implications of the current economic climate.
There is no doubt that there was a great level of pain and confusion last October after the announcement was made on medical cards for those over 70. It is a real sign of how in touch this Government is with the older community that the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, came out, put their hands up and apologised for getting it wrong before making amends. They came out a few days later and introduced a new package with much wider financial limits that would bring more people into the net, allowing them to keep their medical cards.
I stated last October and I will repeat that this is a good scheme. People on very high incomes should pay for their medical care. If they earn in excess of €100,000 they should be asked to pay for their own care. The State will look after more vulnerable people who are not able to pay for it. I look forward to the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, replying as I have no doubt that savings of €100 million are to be gained as a result of our actions this morning.
When we were debating the matter in October and November, the joint Opposition parties were great at shouting and roaring about the saving of €100 million and what was happening with the medical card. None of them, has mentioned the €700 million allocated in the budget to the wider health services.
There are currently 1.4 million people in the State entitled to a medical card. Of these, 355,000 are over 70 and, from that portion, 230,000 are not affected by this move. That leaves 125,000 who will be means-tested. Of that group, approximately 105,000 will fall into the category provided for under this Bill, leaving 20,000 people in the higher income bracket.
The goalposts have been moved by the combined Opposition parties. A few short years ago, Labour and Fine Gael were totally opposed to what the Government of the day was doing in extending the medical cards to those over 70. I only have to think of Deputy James Reilly when he was president of the IMO, who on 7 December 2000 stated that it was not acceptable for the Government to hand out free medical cards to people who can afford golf club fees. A month later, on 18 January 2001, he indicated that, in practice, retired civil servants, High Court judges, property tycoons, Ministers of State and hospital consultants would be eligible for medical cards while individuals and families on lower incomes suffering from chronic illness would be excluded. I do not know who he thought would be excluded.
This gives a little clearer insight into the deal he did then for his colleagues in the medical profession when his actions resulted in robbing the taxpayers and giving the high incomes that we have seen GPs get to look after the over 70s with medical cards.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: Around the same time, Deputy Michael Noonan of Fine Gael said in the Dáil that in these circumstances, he did not think it was justifiable to extend the automatic entitlement of a medical card to all our citizens over 80 without reference to being means tested. He was not even talking about those aged over 70 but those over 80. I have not heard any Labour spokespersons contribute yet, but Opposition Members cannot have it every way. They cannot shout and roar at the Government for extending the medical card scheme, and then shout and roar again when it adjusts it.
Opposition Members are being downright rude and are playing politics with vulnerable people. They were the people who created the confusion two months ago. No one knew what they were entitled to because the Opposition parties did not want them to know that.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I did not interrupt anyone, but I have been interrupted three times. The truth hurts. Opposition Members can give it, but they cannot take it. The Opposition certainly put a lot of spin on the medical card issue. Its Members did not want anyone to know what they were entitled to. People went away from the big march in Dublin thinking they were going to lose everything, including free travel, electricity, telephone and fuel allowances. Again this morning, Senator Fitzgerald asked what is next. She is putting out spin, making people afraid, leaving them wondering what will they lose when the Government is telling them they will not lose anything. It is wrong.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: On 15 October, I put the record straight on the VHI. I went to the trouble of ringing the VHI. I wonder if anyone in Fine Gael rang the VHI to find out what the true situation was——
Senator Geraldine Feeney: ——before spinning the story they wanted in the media. Unfortunately, the media pick up what the Opposition is saying because all they give out is doom and gloom. I thank God, for the people of Ireland, that the Opposition is not in Government.
I listened to the debate in the Lower House yesterday concerning widows, of which I am one myself, and retired teachers. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, can examine the situation to see what can be done.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: My party in particular has been the champion of the older community from the foundation of the State. I will not go into what the Opposition parties have done down through the years for the older community. They are Johnny-come-latelys to this group of people. They rant and rave about what the Government has done, but if it were not for Fianna Fáil-led Governments over the decades, the elderly would not be in the good situation they are in today.
Senator Phil Prendergast: This Bill is the document that lets loose the Government’s plan for making pensioners pay for its economic mismanagement. It is a cynical measure because it is deliberately vague, attempts to undo a political blunder, and is a punishment for good sense and prudence.
For years, working people have been warned about the pensions time-bomb. They have been advised by successive Governments not to rely on the State pension come retirement. This Bill, however, is a pensions incendiary device for those on modest incomes who followed the Government’s advice and contributed to an occupational or private pension. Now their foresight and sacrifice is about to blow up in their faces. They are the ones most harshly treated by this measure. Because of this Bill, some of them may have been better off not providing for their retirement because it pushes them above the income threshold and they will lose their medical card. The prudent are being punished by the imprudent.
The Bill extends the card to those earning above the €36,000 threshold who are experiencing hardship owing to medical costs, but how much outlay is enough to be considered a cause of hardship? The Bill does not say. This is just one example of its deliberate vagueness. In addition, why does it only refer to hardship due to medical costs? Someone on €36,000 could have other reasons for experiencing hardship. For instance, what about people who dipped into their savings or acted as guarantor on loans so their children could buy their own home in the Government-inflated housing market over the past ten years? Such people are coming to my constituency clinics at the moment. They may now have liabilities they must meet without the security of a medical card.
This Bill refers to hardship due to medical costs, but it should be amended to say hardship due to Government cutbacks. It is all the more shameful that this and other cutbacks in the health service are being implemented while tax breaks continue to be offered to multi-millionaire companies to build private hospitals. This Bill is, truly, yet another example of the Americanisation of our health service.
No one can be sure this attack on the health and peace of mind 20,000 pensioners will save the health service €16 million. There has been no explanation how this figure was arrived at, but we know the figure of €16 million was announced before the decision to defer the implementation by two months. We also know that Age Action Ireland expects an increase in the number of pensioners taking up beds in hospitals and nursing homes because of the loss of their medical cards. This will increase health service costs rather than decrease them.
There is provision for the income threshold to be disregarded where medical costs cause hardship. Therefore, the €16 million saving, which appears to have fallen to €13.5 million, looks like becoming a false economy. The last time I spoke about this matter in the Chamber, a Senator on the Government side said opponents of the measure were engaged in opposition for opposition’s sake and that we were not recognising the financial reality. I ask you.
The Labour Party opposes this Bill because it removes the principle of universal health care for the over 70s. Free health care for people of that age is as fundamental as free education for children. The tens of thousands of pensioners who turned up outside Leinster House were not engaged in opposition for opposition’s sake either. They were not here for the crack — anything but. I have never heard anything so preposterous in my entire life.
Senator Phil Prendergast: The Labour Party agreed with them then, we agree with them now, and so do many Government backbenchers in the Dáil. In fact, they saw their political life flash before their eyes when they saw those protests. They realised the electorally disastrous effects of one of the most callous Government cutbacks in 30 years, and so did the Cabinet. In response, the Government came up with a revised version which still does not recognise the universal entitlement to free medical care for the over 70s. That is why the Labour Party will continue to oppose this Bill at every level. It is an attempt by the Government to pretend it is listening to the elderly, but in truth it is documentary evidence of a Government without values. As my party’s spokesperson for the elderly, I have seen cases every day where they are hurting deeply as a result of the actions of this Government. It is scurrilous to say that anyone was here for the crack on that day when people, as best they could, protested and let their feelings be known about the actions of the Government.
Senator Maria Corrigan: I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak on this topic. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House and thank her for her work, to date, on behalf of older persons.
The Health Bill sets out how the Government intends to legislate for the changes announced in the budget regarding the provision of medical cards to those aged over 70 years. The country faces an unfavourable economic climate in which our resources will be more stretched than ever. In the 2009 budget, the Government made a number of decisions regarding the State’s finances. In an ideal scenario, everyone aged over 70 years would receive a medical card, our acknowledgement of their contribution to the society that we have the good fortune to enjoy. The decision to remove their automatic entitlement makes no Senator happy, yet legislators are beholden under the principle of responsible governance to act decisively and responsibly with our limited financial resources.
In 2009, the Government will raise €10 million less per day than it will spend. In these circumstances, it behoves us to find ways to save and to ensure our limited amount of money is spent where it is most required. We do not have enough to undertake everything that we would like to do. Some families are not entitled to medical cards, as the relevant limits are more restrictive. They are to the pin of their collars. Given these facts, we cannot justify an automatic entitlement for millionaires aged over 70 years or those who can afford to pay.
The initial announcement of the change, the confusion regarding thresholds and the lack of available information caused anxiety and fear among the elderly. For a number of days, people endured distress, fear and hurt unnecessarily. We can never erase the hurt caused. The Taoiseach has apologised, as the Government’s initial announcement unintentionally caused distress to one of the most vulnerable sectors of society. I welcome the clarifications of and subsequent changes to the scheme.
The measures outlined in the Bill are fair and responsible. A single person aged over 70 years will still be entitled to a medical card if his or her income is less than €700 per week, as will couples whose income is less than €1,400 per week. These limits provide ample scope for enabling the most vulnerable among the elderly, namely, those on low incomes, to keep their medical cards. As announced, every citizen whose only income is a State pension will automatically retain his or her medical card from 2 March 2009. Single people or couples whose incomes exceed the thresholds, but who believe they require medical cards, can apply to the HSE for discretionary medical cards stating medical needs.
In recent years, the Government has made improving the services for the elderly and their quality of life and entitlements a priority. We have made substantial progress in this regard, including the greatest ever expansion in services for the elderly. We have introduced home care packages. A few years ago, almost no elderly person received nursing or therapy care at home. This type of care was normally provided in hospitals or nursing homes. This year, more than 10,000 people will benefit. In addition to home care packages, we expanded the number of home help hours by more than 500,000. In 2007, approximately 53,000 people received home help services, involving more than 11.75 million home help hours. Since 2005, approximately 2,500 additional places in day and respite care centres have been created. The budget for services for the elderly has increased by more than €540 million.
Life expectancy in Ireland is above the EU average for the first time. Our rapid increase in life expectancy since 1999 is unmatched by any EU country. In terms of tax and social welfare, the number of positive changes that we have made has resulted in a much improved situation, a better quality of life and superior entitlements and benefits for the elderly.
I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Minister of State and the HSE for the current campaign on the prevention of abuse of the elderly. I welcome the practical steps employed, including the awareness campaign, the provision of a dedicated telephone number for people to report their concerns and the follow-up on the ground by public health nurses. I encourage people to familiarise themselves with the information on some of the risks and dangers facing the elderly and to pass on any relevant concerns, particularly as we approach Christmas.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Dealing with this issue recently has been difficult for her. While my high regard for her has not been reduced, I oppose this appalling decision, which has caused hurt, chaos and worry among many elderly people who have given their lives and made a considerable contribution to the country. It is a sad end for them.
I wish to raise a number of issues. What will be lost because of the introduction of the Bill? In 1999, the Government introduced free medical cards for over 80 year olds, a small percentage of the population at the time. It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge the substantial improvement over the original proposal, but it is not enough. Nor are the ways in which the barriers and problems have been addressed enough. I will revert to some of these points. Given the cutbacks, I have not heard an explanation as to why the question of free medical cards for over 80 year olds has not been addressed. Will the Government consider restoring their free medical cards?
Regarding gross and net amounts, it is appalling that the Government softened the impact of the change by making some important decisions. The first question asked by Senators relates to the meaning of the figure. When someone told us it was a gross figure, we pointed out that the net amount used to be the figure taken. According to the website of the Department of Finance, which was stunningly unsympathetic, devastating and stupid to the highest order, the gross figure is being used because people understand it better than a net figure. At a time when everyone was uptight concerning this issue, I could not believe that such a flippant answer to a serious question could be given. It was harsh.
I listened as the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, discussed another aspect of the matter. In response to a question asked by Deputy Reilly in the Dáil last night, she stated that nursing home charges might be taken into account. I have already given an example. If the cut-off point is rounded up to €37,000, a person with a good annual pension of €40,000 who is in a nursing home and has no siblings or other family faces costs of €4,000 per month. Such person will pay more to stay in a nursing home than he or she is earning. Not taking into consideration nursing home charges would be outrageous. I could provide many examples, but we do not have the time. Will the Minister of State elaborate on these issues?
People are not trying to rob the State. Those in question have paid into their pensions for all of their lives and looked after their futures so as not to be a burden on the State. They take their lifestyles and contributions seriously, but now feel discarded. Anything that can be taken into account in this important issue should be considered. The people to whom I refer are discovering that they may lose out because they have pensions. Those who are obliged to pay full nursing home costs and who earn €40,000 per year would be better off if they did not have pensions. It will not matter what level of pension a couple, only one of whom is earning, has at its disposal. Such people will find it impossible to cope if they are not entitled to medical cards, particularly if a total of €48,000 is taken from them at a rate of €4,000 per month. Members on all sides are familiar and have dealt with issues of this nature on many occasions. In that context, I ask the Minister of State to take into consideration what I am saying.
There are other issues relating to the net and gross position which she might also consider. One matter which has not yet been addressed is the additional costs incurred by the elderly. I refer here to costs relating to physiotherapy and other forms of therapy which these people need as a result of their age. These therapies are hugely expensive.
I wish to put a straight question to the Minister of State. I have already posed a number of questions and I know she will respond to each in a diligent manner. If she is not in a position to provide an answer to the question I intend to pose, I would be satisfied if she could supply it at a later date. When the measure to which the Health Bill 2008 relates was put forward in the budget by the Minister for Finance, it was the subject of much discussion. Our colleague, the spokesperson on health on the other side of the House, commented on the night when the budget was introduced that she welcomed it and that it was great. She was the only person in the country to say or believe that at the time. Those of us on this side of the House were shocked by her comments.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The statement by the Senator to which I refer was made on the night on which the Seanad debated the budget. Senator Feeney knows me long enough to be aware that I would never put words in her mouth. I will communicate further with her in respect of this matter and if I am incorrect with regard to what she said, I will withdraw my remarks. However, I do not believe that I am incorrect.
The cost to the State of medical cards for the over 70s was €650 per person per year. The concept behind the Bill is to reduce that cost. If a person offered to pay the State €650 per year, could he or she effectively buy a medical card as a result? A visit to one’s GP costs €40 or €50, so the €650 would pay for a number of such visits each year. However, if the Government received that money up front, people would be covered in respect of the various treatments to which a medical card would entitle them. In addition, they would visit their doctors when it was necessary for them to do so and would not worry about the cost or the need to save money by not making such visits. If they paid the money directly, it would almost provide them with a form of insurance. Will the Minister of State comment on this matter?
On universal access, the arguments put forward by those on the Government benches with regard to millionaires receiving medical cards are spurious. No one on this side of the House is of the view that millionaires should be entitled to medical cards. However, when I worked as a school principal, I never prevented millionaires — if there were any around at the time — from enrolling their children at my school. I do not know of any other principals who would have prevented such children from being enrolled. We were of the view that there are certain things to which people, as members of society, are entitled and one of these is education, to which there should be universal access.
Universal access already exists in certain areas of our lives. Such access should also apply in respect of health services for those who are over 70. It is not a question of millionaires taking advantage of the system. If a millionaire wants to buy something for himself or herself, he or she is free to do so. In a society which operates on the basis of equity, a platform should be provided to all citizens in this regard. That is the basis of universal access and the way it is paid for is through taxation. If someone pays his or her taxes in this country, then he or she should have an entitlement.
There are other further issues relating to the net and gross position that I would like the Minister of State to explain. What, for example, will be the position of people who receive lump sums on retirement? A person who is on the borderline as regards the threshold would be better off spending their entire lump sum. We are forcing people to do things which run completely contrary to all that we advised them to do previously. The approach in respect of this matter has not been thought through.
On many previous occasions I referred to the question of numbers. I will not argue with the Minister of State in respect of this matter but nonetheless I wish to highlight it. On the first occasion we ever obtained figures from the Department, they were given in reply to a question about the number of people who were then working in the health service. The figure with which we were provided was out by some 25,000. It was stated that there were 90,000 employees in the health service when in reality the figure was approximately 115,000.
On the next occasion we obtained figures relating to the health service it was in reply to a query regarding the number of people over 70 who would be entitled to medical cards. I do not need to revisit that debacle with the exception of stating that we never received a final indication as to the number of people who would be so entitled. However, everyone agrees that the Department of Health and Children completely underestimated the position. I make this point because I do not believe that there are only 20,000 people over 70 years of age who will not quality for medical cards. On the basis of the evidence I have seen in this regard, the figure of 20,000 cannot be accurate. In estimating the position in this regard, many people are working on the basis of the value of pensions last year. Almost all those in the private sector who derive their salaries from investments will have taken a huge hit in that regard and their incomes will be well below the threshold for the foreseeable future.
I would like the Government to provide a clear indication of its philosophy in respect of this matter. I would also like it to outline what might be done in the future and what action might be taken to ameliorate what is being done in the legislation before the House. I would like a breakdown in respect of the supposedly only 20,000 people over 70 who are not entitled to medical cards. How many retired teachers, nurses, gardaí, civil servants and private sector employees are involved? If someone can inform me that the total number is under 20,000, I will be absolutely amazed. I have spoken to people involved with the Retired Teachers Association and individuals involved in banking and the Civil Service. The estimates they provided indicate that the number of people who will be affected is well in excess of 20,000.
I have posed a number of questions in respect of the figures and we will return to these on Committee Stage. It seems there are far too many questions in respect of, and far too much hardship attaching to, these measures. I have tried to keep my contribution balanced and to raise issues which are of concern and which might be addressed. I request that the Minister of State reply in respect of the questions I posed in respect of those who are over 80 and the possibility of the Government raising the threshold to €40,000, €45,000 or €50,000. A development in respect of either of these matters would make a major difference. The Government should show sympathy to those who are concerned about this matter and who are of the view that obtaining a medical card would have a major impact on their lives.
Will the Minister of State also reply in respect of my query as to whether it might be possible for people to pay the €650 relating to the cost of the medical card scheme and thereby buy directly into that scheme? We have discovered that if people visit their doctors when they need to do so, they will have less need of further medical support thereafter. We received figures in this regard during the past three to four months but, again, no one has seen fit to query them.
I will return to these matters on Committee Stage. I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply to the debate. If I am not present in the Chamber for it, she can rest assured that I will be listening to it on the monitor in my office.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor. Before he leaves the House, I wish to acknowledge the constructive approach adopted by Senator O’Toole in respect of his contributions. I find that refreshing. His comment with regard to those over 80 was particularly constructive. I am slightly envious of the fact that the Senator, as an Independent, is not in danger of ever putting himself in a position that he will be in government to take the decisions and make the choices.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I am sure he is; are we not all? He has that luxury to an extent and it is not one other political parties have. Regardless of what side of the House one is on, when one enters politics, one ultimately must be constructive. What good is a politician if he or she constantly knocks proposals and never offers any hope or perspective that one understands the issues facing the country? I find the Fine Gael response to this issue particularly disappointing.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: If I may make this point before the Senator criticises me, what is needed in politics is consistency and after that follows credibility If one is not consistent, one will never have credibility.
Senator Feeney alluded to remarks made by the Fine Gael Dáil spokesperson on health. When he was paid by IMO he was doing a deal for it, but now he is in politics he has to change his tune. It is an acute embarrassment for the party. I saw the Members on the other side of the House squirming with embarrassment when Senator Feeney pointed out——
Senator Fiona O’Malley: Planning and responsibility are other qualities a political party need to have. I do not believe any Member on either side of this House welcomes the idea that an entitlement of the over 70s is to be withdrawn. Naturally, it would be preferable, and certainly politically, much easier if we did not have to take tough decisions, but that is what politics and governance is about. That is why we have to examine the real economic situation currently and as forecast and, coupled with that, we have to examine the demographics and plan for the future, bearing in mind what the country can afford.
As was said earlier in this debate and in previous debates, the people we must look after first are those in greatest need who do not have the capacity to provide for themselves. How can it be deemed to be fair or just that when the economy was in a better state and we could have afforded this measure — admittedly when the measure was introduced it was expected to be at a lower cost in terms of the GPs and Dr. Reilly did the business very well for his colleagues in the medical profession to extract——
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I though it was closer to four times the price already deemed on offer to GPs. Dr. Reilly had the Government over the barrel of a gun in that respect and by God he exploited that advantage. Fair play to him, he was being paid to exploit it. When the economy was in better shape this measure could be provided for people, but we are no longer in that situation. That is the reason this measure must be withdrawn from people who can afford it.
One aspect on which we all agree is that the manner in which this matter was dealt with was not ideal. Frequently when a change arises from a budget — many of the political controversies have arisen from issues emerging from the budget — proper consultation cannot take place because of the confidential nature of the budget. Perhaps we should examine that aspect and how we can get a sense of how other difficult political decisions that need to be taken will be played out before they are taken.
Matters were not helped by whipping up a hysteria of fear and anxiety in older people. That was highly irresponsible. Admittedly, the party opposite is entitled to play politics and that is fair enough. It is one thing, however, to do it with a group of people who are able to look after themselves——
Senator Fiona O’Malley: ——but it is another to do it with a group of vulnerable older people. Spokesperson after spokesperson mentioned that older people would lose X, Y, and Z, that the floodgates would open and that they would not get anything any more. We all know the anxiety that caused. That was disgraceful.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I appreciate that. One important feature of this legislation, which has not been remarked upon or discussed, is that it will ensure that the payments to GPs in this respect will be on a much fairer basis. Plenty of GPs were prepared to open up services in my constituency in Dún Laoghaire because it is perceived as an area where many wealthier people live and, as we all know, they were called “gold card” recipients, in respect of whom four times the level of the standard fee was paid. Naturally, it was great hunting ground for GPs, but the awful consequence of it was that people in less affluent areas were not properly served by GPs. This was a disgraceful consequence. The legislation will ensure that fairness is restored to service provision. This aspect has been overlooked because the fact that an entitlement is being withdrawn from people is being played out in a big way, which is fair enough as the party opposite want to play politics with it, but the equilibrium that will be restored to the provision of GP services throughout the country is a positive consequence of this Bill. It is to be welcomed. I am glad to have the opportunity to put that on the record. We cannot have a system that introduces a ferocious imbalance in the service provision such that wealthy areas are very well served while poorer communities are not. That is an important consequence of this legislation.
The Government has to deal with the current economic situation while the Opposition do not. The one point I have not heard Fine Gael say is that it would reverse a decision such as this one. Of course, it would not because it knows——
Choices need to be made. One feature of Government is that one has to make choices and sometimes they are tough, particularly in a worsening economic climate. The Government’s priority is to make sure that economic prosperity can be restored and that involves making tough decisions. I admire the courage of the politicians who have taken this brave stance because it is not easy to take from older people something to which they had been entitled, but unfortunately it is a necessity.
Senator Liam Twomey: I am getting a little upset by the contributions from the Government side of the House. Consistency does not mark the number of U-turns Senator O’Malley has made on the budget. Does she believe in the U-turns she has made in regard to this scheme up to this point, or does she believe there should be a return to giving vouchers to the over 70s, as was the proposal initially announced? Fianna Fáil is a disgrace, considering it is now admitting that it was happy for the past seven years to give a second class service to patients over 70 who were living in poorer areas. That is a disgrace.
The Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State present believe that an automatic entitlement to a medical card for patients over the age of 70 does not represent prudent or fair financial planning. To me, that is almost like a reverse takeover of Fianna Fáil by the PDs when prudent and fair financial planning are the only considerations that feature in a decision to give an automatic entitlement to those who are over the age of 70. We are beginning to find that many other things we took for granted will be taken from patients as part of prudent and fair financial planning in the future. Let us ask parents of children who should be vaccinated against cervical cancer what they think of the current prudent and fair financial planning. Government policy clearly states that if money is tight, it is the poor, sick and elderly who will suffer. Three months ago the Government gave itself, us and every single public servant a 2.5% pay increase and that is the reason for the cutbacks. When Fianna Fail, the Progressive Democrats and the Greens are decimating the health service and education, risking cancer in young women and betraying elderly people, that——
Senator Liam Twomey: There is only one thing worse than a sick economy and that is a sick society where the rich are looking after their own interests to the detriment of the poor, sick and elderly. That is what has happened in the budget. That is Government policy.
Senator Liam Twomey: Ministers and Members of the Oireachtas paid themselves a few thousand euro extra in September and in October we took medical cards from those over 70 and disability payments from people with disabilities.
Senator Liam Twomey: Significant cutbacks were made to social welfare payments. Members of the House who are not bleeding heart liberals understand what has happened but it is clear the Government is far too arrogant to understand what I am talking about.
The Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, describes her office as being responsible for a comprehensive policy vision to bring cohesion to Government planning, policy and service delivery. Was she consulted beforehand on the proposals to strip free health care from people over 70? It is unlikely. Was she informed when a civil servant sent a memo from the Department of Finance stating that the removal of the automatic entitlement to medical cards for those over 70 was a bad idea? We would appreciate an answer to that.
What kind of vision did the Minister of State have for the elderly as she applauded those proposals when they were announced on budget day? That is the betrayal elderly people got so worked up about outside this House soon after the budget was announced. They saw in the initial scheme that was announced an automatic entitlement to free general practitioner care and primary health care being replaced with vouchers. The reason the Government made a significant U-turn on that is because the people showed how much they disagreed with the proposals. The Government’s vision for the elderly is in tatters because of the betrayal that was proposed by Government at that time.
There are differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I am pleased to inform Senator O’Malley that I have always been fully supportive of having free health care for everyone over 70. She was in the Lower House with me and Senator Feeney was on the Joint Committee on Health and Children with me when I informed the Minister on numerous occasions that having two payments for people over the age of 70 was a discriminatory practice. The Minister, Deputy Harney, did nothing about it and very little support was given to me in those five years in the Lower House whenever I raised that issue. It is disgraceful for them to take the high moral ground now. It is playing politics.
The Minister stated only 20,000 people over the age of 70 are affected. They are retired teachers, nurses, gardaí and civil servants. There are not that many retired judges and Ministers in the country for Government representatives to be so pathetic in their contributions by saying that they are the ones off whom the Government is taking medical cards. That is not true.
Senator Liam Twomey: The Senators should read the contributions of Government representatives in the Lower House. The cost of giving a medical card to every single person over the age of 70 is €5.8 million.
Senator Liam Twomey: Let us move on. If France, England and Germany can provide a comprehensive primary health care service, not just to those over 70 but to practically the entire population, why can we not do it? Why are we setting out to penalise people over the age of 70 just because things got a little tough?
Senator Liam Twomey: We were able to pay ourselves a 2.5% increase in September and the Government has spoken about paying ourselves another 6% next August. Why can we not keep universal entitlement not just for those over 70——
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator O’Malley, please. Senator Twomey should be allowed to speak without interruption. You sought the protection of the Chair. Please allow Senator Twomey to speak without interruption.
Senator Liam Twomey: Senator O’Malley should be aware that the budget cutbacks on the provision of medical cards amount to €5.8 million and it would cost approximately €10 million to vaccinate every single young girl in the country. The 2.5% increase we paid ourselves in September is approximately €300 million and next August we are going to spend another €800 million or €900 million on increases. How can Senator O’Malley say we cannot pay for those services? We are talking about a figure between €16 million and €20 million. We should be talking about not just keeping the over 70s medical card but extending it to children under the age of five, who are also a distinct vulnerable group in society because of the income——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: On a point of order, Senator Feeney should withdraw that personal remark she made about Senator Twomey. It was unparliamentary and ungracious, and she should be ashamed of herself.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: On a point of order, can I refer to the gesture Senator Buttimer made to me when he walked into the Chamber? He should think about that before he asks me to withdraw a remark.
Senator Liam Twomey: I do not give a hoot about what Senator Feeney thinks of my opportunities for being re-elected to Dáil Éireann. I am more concerned about the Government’s betrayal of elderly people by taking from them the entitlement to a medical card, the way it tried to replace the medical card with vouchers, and the way it dismissed giving medical cards to children under the age of five. For someone who was a member of the Medical Council and also a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, she has a very poor grasp of what is happening in the wider community and the concerns we should be showing. That is the issue we should discuss in the House.
In case Senator O’Malley is wondering, we should stop the charade of continuing to plan for a 6% pay increase. She likes to ensure I put my views on record, as I did last Friday. I do not believe we should pay ourselves a 6% increase next year.
Senator Liam Twomey: That is typical of the kind of silly remark Senator O’Malley makes. We should show leadership and say we will not accept a 6% pay increase and retain a few automatic entitlements for the people instead. This complements our belief in citizenship. Senator O’Malley is all talk because she does not know what consistency or a U-turn means.  She does not know whether she wants to support the old scheme or the new one. That is inconsistent. I have made it quite clear, on the record of both Houses, exactly what I believe in and my position is far more consistent than that of Senator O’Malley.
Senator Joe O’Toole: On a point of order, I gave a guarantee to withdraw a comment I made about Senator Feeney if I discovered it was incorrect. I want to correct her record. On Wednesday, 15 October, she stated in this House: “This is a great budget ...”.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to speak about the Health Bill 2008. It is obvious from the fractious nature of the debate in the Chamber that we are discussing an emotive issue. It is emotive because there are many older people who regard the withdrawal of universal access to a medical card by those over 70 as regressive. The Green Party did not support the universal availability of free medical cards for those over 70 in the first instance. Therefore, the party is happy that the scheme being established in this Health Bill will allow 95% of older people to have free medical cards. The 5% who will be excluded are those individuals over 70 who are among the top 5% of income earners. We are happy that is a fair and sustainable system to look after the health care needs of older people.
As mentioned by the Minister of State, it is important to note that the number of people over 70 is projected to grow over the coming years, to 363,000 by 2011, 433,000 by 2016 and 535,000 by 2021. The question for all legislators concerns how the State will ensure that the real health needs of the older population will be addressed and that any financial assistance they need to meet the cost of addressing those needs will be provided. When we consider the growing number of older people, we must be sensible and realistic about what can be afforded.
Members referred to other EU member states with better systems of universal entitlement to health care, and we need to examine these systems. Those other countries have different models in place and certainly do not have our low rate of taxation. It is impossible to argue for health care systems based on universal entitlement, as the Opposition seems to be doing, in an economy with the lowest rate of taxation in the European Union. We must be honest with ourselves and admit that if we are in favour of universal entitlement to certain essential services, as is the Green Party, we need to pursue a different economic model, a model that recognises that much higher rates of taxation are necessary. That is a national debate that will have to take place.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: Many people in Ireland are convinced by and wedded to the idea that low rates of taxation are essential to the success of the Irish economy. We need a very honest debate and I call on the Opposition to be honest in that regard. It is very easy, when in opposition, to condemn the Government for what is, in effect, a system that will provide a medical card for 95% of older people. At the same time, the Government is aware that Ireland is facing very difficult economic times. We heard an announcement this morning that the economy is likely to contract by between 3% and 4% next year. We find ourselves in very serious circumstances and the Government is trying to respond sensibly and fairly to them.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: A Government should be capable of making decisions that may not be very popular among the public. This Health Bill advocates as fair a system as could be asked for by the State in the sense that, under it, 95% of older people will be looked after.
The system we are introducing in the Bill was designed to minimise hardship and undue anxiety among those over 70. Those aged 70 and over on 31 December 2008 who have non-means-tested medical cards will not be subject to the new means test. For those who turn 70 in the new year, there will be a much more simplified means test compared with that which they would have been subjected to had they been applying to participate in the standard medical card scheme.
The Government was very aware that, even with the simplified procedure, people would find the application process difficult. Consequently — the Opposition should recognise this — the Minister accepted an amendment on Committee Stage requiring the HSE to provide supports to any person making an application for a medical card if he or she requires such supports by reason of incapacity. That is a very fair concession. We recognise that, under the new system, there will be an eligibility test involving an application process. It is important that the Government is putting in place the supports that will ensure no older person is overwhelmed or finds himself or herself disadvantaged by reason of incapacity or inability to go through the application process.
The Government was very keen to ensure persons aged 70 and over would not lose their medical cards as an immediate consequence of the death of a spouse. I have been contacted by a number of constituents, including older people, about this issue. They are very concerned that the death of a spouse might mean the sudden loss of their medical cards. For this reason, the Minister tabled an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil to ensure that persons aged 70 and over would not lose their medical cards as an immediate consequence of the death of a spouse. A person aged 70 or over whose spouse dies on or after 1 January 2009 will retain the medical card for a period of three years at the same limit, of €1,400, as for a couple provided he or she remains within that limit.
It is very clear from this Bill that every attempt has been made, by way of legislative change, to ensure no older person will end up disadvantaged by the new system or will find himself or herself incapable of filling out the necessary application form associated therewith.
At a time like this, we must be honest with the people about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Increasingly over the coming months, we will be calling on the Opposition to be such. When in opposition, it is very easy to call for universal entitlement to all kinds of health care services. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, health resources will be significantly constrained. We must be realistic with people about what the State can afford. We need a sustainable health care system that is affordable. The Health Bill provides for a system that will look after the health care needs of older people and provide coverage for those who need assistance in paying for their medical needs. The 5% who are excluded by this Bill will not regard it as unfair that the Government is not providing for a system that will cover their medical needs. We have examined this issue closely and have put the fairest possible system in place. It is for that reason that the Green Party feels it can support the Bill.
Senator David Norris: Yes, absolutely, but I do not welcome any Member of this disgraceful Government to this House. The Government has behaved barbarously in this and in many other areas. When I listen to people on that side of the House talking about protecting the vulnerable and the weak, I wonder how they dare to engage in such bare-faced hypocrisy, following the budget and the destruction of the Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Authority. There are plenty of little voices over there that would like to speak out, and if the Green Party has guts, conscience or decency, this is the time for it to get out of this corrupt and discredited Government. I completely condemn it and no Minister will get a welcome from me in this House as long as the Government continues its savage attacks on the most vulnerable elements in our society, even stifling their voice. The Government is a disgrace and it is time it went.
There is a lot of hypocrisy over there. I listened to some of the debate here and heard the people on that side of the House whinging about being interrupted and then heckling, hectoring and cat-calling to this side. I am not Opposition, but Independent, and I believe I show it. I vote with the Government when it has decent policies. Yesterday in this House I commended the Government including the Green Party Minister of State on the manner in which they handled the pig crisis, but I will not stand for rubbish and hypocrisy. We are told about tough decisions and asked to support them. I would support any tough decisions if the Government really took them, but I will not support lies, evasion and hypocrisy. These decisions are not tough, they are just stupid.
If the Government thinks it can mask a stupid decision and describe it as tough, then it is very much mistaken and the Irish people certainly have it rumbled. The Government is asking, in effect, “What good is it to knock, knock, knock when we must be constructive?” Not much is constructive about what is happening here today in this Bill. I understand that perhaps it was foolish to have made these concessions, but it was the Government that did it, as a cynical vote-getting exercise. Now it is going to batter old people over the heads to get back a few bob, to take its bribe back, because that is what it was.
We are in a difficult financial situation, but who got us into it, not I? It was not people on this side of the House but rather those on the Government side, with their corrupt relations with the construction industry, for one thing. We are in a difficult situation globally, but Ireland is far worse off than most other countries in Europe because of the way the Government carried on, with its squandermania, and it is still at it. It destroyed the Combat Poverty Agency. One of the Members on the Government side of the House put on record a few days ago the fact that it will actually cost money to destroy the Combat Poverty Agency. Let us not have any more of this lying. We saw yesterday that councillors are to share €10 million — another little bribe. Why is the Government handing out €10 million to people as a type of golden handshake, which is not required? Why is it doing that while destroying the Combat Poverty Agency to save a minute proportion of that sum. This is outrageous.
I am glad, however, as Senator de Búrca pointed out, that the appalling situation where people could be widowed one day and have the medical card removed from them the next, is being amended. It was not amended, however, out of any sense of decency, but rather because Deputy Alan Shatter — with whom I disagree on many issues — pointed out that it would be unconstitutional and would not have survived.
It is also cack-handed. The Government was warned about this and took no notice. It received a report from the Department of Finance, wondering whether the significant risks had been spotted, apart from anything else. The Departments of Health and Children and Finance were told there were significant risks attached to the move to abolish the automatic entitlement to a medical card for the over 70s. That was before the budget on 10 October, and the Department of Health and Children appears not to have considered the risk to be of sufficient concern so as not to accept it. That was its brazen attitude at the time. There was a one and half page report suggesting that there would be widespread anger, and pointing out a series of difficulties, namely, that the doctors would be at a loss of income from the higher capitation grant and might refuse to take on the new over-70 GP visit-only cardholders, the GPs might seek to use their industrial relations muscle or they might pursue the legal contract route, similar to the pharmacists, to restore all or part of their income. The report warned that if it succeeded with the annual cash grant in place under the new arrangement, it could remove the projected savings and possibly even increase the cost of the medical card scheme, yet it went ahead with it.
I know the Minister put the word “fortunately” before the diatribe about people daring to live longer. I apologise, because I am 64, and I might go on to 70, 80 or 90. I shall live as long as I damn well please.
Senator David Norris: I should declare an interest. I am lucky in having plan E, the most expensive plan available. I can be sick at my leisure any time I want. However, it is disgraceful that the most vulnerable, about whom the Government side prates all the time, are not protected in this way. As for the millionaires, I ask the Minister of State to show me one. I live in the north inner city. There are plenty of rich people around from the suburbs. I do not see queues of Rolls Royces outside the State clinics. If the Minister of State can show me where they are and give me a list of the multimillionaires that are soaking up resources, I shall be obliged. That is all rubbish. It is not true, and we all know it and, therefore, the Government should not be using it.
I believe in a universal system. There was a very interesting letter in the newspapers from three very distinguished doctors, Mr. Hugh Flood, consultant neurologist, Dr. Gerry Burke, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist and Professor Pierce Grace, consultant vascular surgeon at the Regional Hospital Limerick. They put on the record facts to the effect that just over a quarter of Irish citizens are covered by the medical card and about half are covered by private medical insurance, which might say something about our national health service. If a quarter are covered by the medical card and half insure themselves, that would indicate people are voting with their wallets on this one. A quarter of the citizenry have no insurance whatever and, therefore, there could not possibly be a greater argument for universal health care.
The figures were worked out. The HSE board was told that the cost of each new medical card this week was €1,650, but one of the private health insurers was offering coverage for €635 per annum. I do not know whether we could buy into that for the vulnerable citizens. Everybody in this country should be treated equally. That is what was said in the 1916 Proclamation which the Government side seems to have forgotten. I am amazed. Are there any republicans left? I sometimes wonder. We had the call for a boycott on Newry the other day. That is great Thirty-two County republicanism. Now it is a case that one cannot be a millionaire or live long because it is unpatriotic. Why did the Minister for Finance not say that it was unpatriotic to go on living, and that we ought to die out of decency and respect for his cack-handed budget? Well, I am not going to do that.
Senator David Norris: A programme of nationalising the existing private hospitals would accelerate the positive elements and provide the capacity necessary to implement a national scheme. It could be done. Universal health care could be provided promptly, and fairly inexpensively, by the simple measure of giving a medical card to those who cannot afford it, and selling it to those who can. The Government has the money. It could scrap the pay-off to the councillors.
It might be argued that I am being sensational and expecting to get a headline. I am not. There is no “Oireachtas Report” tonight because this House has made itself so insignificant, through the Government playing around with it, that RTE cannot be bothered covering the Seanad. It would be very quickly covered if this were the Dáil. Neither will these proceedings be covered in the newspapers. I feel obliged, only out of honour to put these matters on the record. I want to signal to the Government that I am only one independent voice, and it will get no co-operation from me on anything. I will call quorums all over the place. A Leas-Chathaoirligh, can we have a quorum?
Senator Ivor Callely: I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. The Health Bill 2008 is a short Bill that deals principally with one issue, the abolition of the universal entitlement to a medical card on age eligibility for persons aged 70 and over. This arose from the budget announcement on 14 October 2008 when the Minister for Finance outlined the grave and difficult financial and economic challenges the country faces.
When times were good, Fianna Fáil-led Administrations invested wisely in our infrastructure and dramatically increased a range of supports and services, including the State pension and other supports for older people. Therefore, I must disagree with my learned colleague, Senator Norris, who criticised this side of the House. Fianna Fáil is justly proud of its history of social advance. In times of economic gain when we were in a position to deliver, we steadily improved and extended services for our older people. Good pensions, free travel, home supports, special grants for home improvements, fuel allowances, travel passes, companion travel passes, telephone allowances, free television licence, Christmas bonuses, health and social supports and many other secondary benefits have been provided.
Fianna Fáil has also established the Office for Older People and I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for older people to the House. It is an integral part of Fianna Fáil philosophy that the older person should have all the necessary supports and be protected from the harsh winds of recessionary periods to the greatest possible extent.
I am on record as stating Ireland is a small country which has achieved success beyond measure and beyond the expected capacity of a nation our size. Through the efforts of previous generations, the Irish economy has developed to a healthy level. Our success has been built on the shoulders of giants, and their efforts to develop our country and economy have borne fruit. I want to see the older generation reap the benefits of their sacrifices. Compared with any other political party, the record of Fianna Fáil is one of caring, compassion and delivery. I can justifiably state that as soon as economic circumstances allow, Fianna Fáil will pursue its philosophy and its track record of social advancement, especially for the older generation.
We live in extraordinarily difficult and challenging economic circumstances. The choices are clear and stark. If we do not make the correct choice, there will be serious consequences. The public wants the Government to take the painful decisions, but, unfortunately, at times like this everyone feels the pain. However, facing the facts of our current situation, as we must, does not mean having a defeatist attitude. I could never accept that type of defeatism and Fianna Fáil members will not accept it either.
I have witnessed political figures play games on the issue of universal entitlement to a medical card. That amounts to little more than a public relations exercise. The record shows that some of these political figures voted in favour of certain measures and when made aware of the response and actions of others, then showed their inept and humiliating lack of leadership rather than trying to find a solution to the crisis.
On account of our traditional confidence in the future of our country and our capacity to overcome difficulties, Fianna Fáil must restore confidence and work with older people, their organisations and representative bodies to demonstrate its determination to pursue its philosophy of social advancement, in line with its proven track record. When Fianna Fáil is in a position to deliver, it delivers.
Fianna Fáil is also big enough to admit when a mistake has been made. To call a spade a spade, there has been an unnatural unfolding of events since 14 October 2008 with regard to the medical card issue, which is a bit of a mess. Apart altogether from the fitting step to address the gold card payment to doctors to accommodate people aged over 70 on their General Medical Services list, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, was aware for some time that the gold card and matters relating to it warranted revisiting to bring it into line with other provisions so we could have a sustainable mechanism in place.
We had a situation where the original financial estimates and calculations for the over 70s scheme were, to a great extent, misleading and incorrect. This was an unhealthy position and the original payments to doctors and reimbursement for expenses could not be sustained. I understand the Minister identified savings to the value of €100 million in this area. Thus, the proposal to abolish the universal entitlement to a medical card on age eligibility was pursued.
Given the current budgetary position, financial prudence dictated the necessity for the Health Bill 2008 which is before us today. I have already put to the Minister for Health and Children my objection to her proposal and have questioned where social justice and legitimate expectation fit in. Could the required savings and necessary renegotiation of doctors’ payments not have been worked out so that we could have avoided the great cloud of worry and anxiety this flawed proposal brought about?
It is wrong that in the current difficult economic climate most of the discussion and Department time and attention following the 2009 budget has focused on a relatively small expenditure item put at a saving, at the time, of €100 million, particularly when placed in the context of a budget of €58 billion.
Moreover, Members now understand that the €100 million in potential savings has been greatly eroded. My good friend, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Hoctor, will be aware of discussions in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting when the announcement was made, at which its members were given a set of income guidelines that were within the control of the Health Service Executive rather than the Department. I am delighted that when this was brought to the Minister’s attention, she took the necessary step to bring back to her Department the authority to put in place the required income guidelines, which she then greatly extended.
The Government also has extended the medical card to the spouse or partner of the person who held a medical card and who was over 70. Consequently, such a partner, who could be 50 or 60 years of age or less, will hold a medical card once one member of the couple does so. That is a great move. Equally, many of the other moves that have been made——
Senator Ivor Callely: In response to the remarks to me from across the floor, the Government has made a mistake. However, I have no doubt, from this side of the House, that universal entitlement to the medical card will be restored because the cost of the application otherwise——
Senator Nicky McFadden: I find this debate to be most callous. This issue is not about politics or scaremongering and Members should not lose focus. Senator Corrigan rightly observed that this society has been looking after its elderly much better and, as a consequence, they are living longer and with dignity. They are doing so because they had the reassurance of, and access to, a medical card. I believe it is foolhardy to withdraw medical cards from all the over 70s because the bulk of the cost has been saved through the Government’s negotiations with GPs in respect of the new fees, as well as the new practices regarding prescription practices. I am unsure whether the Minister of State can hear me but I am sure the Government has saved a lot of money in respect of the 10,000 people who are deceased but who had medical cards. The Minister of State should revert to me by commenting on how much money the Department has saved, having realised that GPs were in receipt of payments for 10,000 deceased people. I believe the economic argument has been and could be saved.
My good and dear colleague, Senator de Búrca, whom I greatly respect, spoke about how easy it is for Opposition Members to criticise the Government. It is extremely easy when the boom has been wasted and so much money has been squandered. The Government’s targeting of the most vulnerable sector of society, with one fell swoop in a single stroke of the pen, is callous. I refer to the waste on PPARS and the storage of the electronic voting machines, as well as the money wasted in FÁS. While the latter is just one sector that Members know about, how much more will come out? Senator Twomey is correct to call for a postponement for everyone of the forthcoming pay increase and I agree with him. The cervical vaccine for children and a universal medical card for all our old people should be granted instead.
I am sure the Minister of State realises that withdrawing the automatic entitlement to the medical card does not simply pertain to prescriptions and doctors’ fees but to all the other ancillary services. Senator Corrigan referred to its importance in respect of home help, respite and so on, but such benefits are automatic only if one has a medical card. I referred to a case previously of a gentleman whose wife suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. To this day, he regrets how he neglected his wife because he did not have the professional capacity to look after her. He did not know how to look after her and lacked support from the State because he was not entitled to a medical card. He did not have free access to a public health nurse, incontinence pads, physiotherapy, chiropody and all the other services that are necessities, not luxuries, when looking after an old person. Such people have worked all their lives and have paid their taxes, and they should be cared for. This is about honouring and respecting our elderly.
I support Senator O’Toole in respect of the over 80s. As I believe the Minister of State is a good individual, I ask her to take into account the over 80s. They are not great in number and, were the Department to save money in all the other areas to which I have referred, it might be possible to look after them and grant them universal access to a medical card. I warmly welcome the amendment that was accepted in respect of those who are in a higher income bracket, such as teachers, local authority workers, ESB workers, Army officers and gardaí. While everyone from those groups will benefit from the amendment proposed by Fine Gael, what will happen after the expiry of the three-year period? What will happen if one lives until one is 73? If, after one’s spouse dies, one receives a widow’s pension and is over the limit, does that mean that one loses one’s benefit after three years? How would one manage then? Moreover, such a person will have become three years older and will more likely have become frail. This concession must be extended further.
While Senator Feeney’s heart may be in the right place, she suggested that people came to Dublin to protest for the craic. My relatives who are over 70 were present and my aunt was in tears because she felt so moved by the support she was getting from older people, including those on Zimmer frames. I applaud the Minister of State for appearing on that platform because she wished to identify with, and connect to, those people. However, they should not be dismissed or be made feel as though they were up in Dublin for the craic.
Senator Feeney also spoke in the House about the scene in St. Andrew’s church, how offended she was by the manners on display and the way in which the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moloney, was treated. While it is not good to heckle a Minister who is trying to speak, Senator Feeney did not really address the issue, namely, that people were afraid about losing something they had been gifted as a bribe before the general election and which then was taken back in one fell swoop. How can one take back a present? I never have and I am sure the Minister of State has not done so either. One cannot take back something one has given.
In the long run, this measure will cost the Government a great deal more money. I refer to elderly people being asked in March to fill in an application form so that they can be means-tested. Elderly people are unable to so do and do not like filling in application forms. I spend much of my time helping older people to fill in application forms. They are afraid and believe that people wish to know their business. This measure is both unnecessary and unhelpful, and I ask the Government to reconsider it and to find the money elsewhere in the areas I have outlined.
Senator Mary M. White: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House and compliment her on the great work she is doing as Minister of State with responsibility for older people. Everyone in Leinster House was deeply affected by the reaction of older people in Ireland to the proposed abolition of the medical card. The response of older people was like a tsunami overwhelming the country. As Fianna Fáil spokesperson on older people, in drawing up my document, A New Approach to Ageing and Ageism, I came to realise that older people in Ireland felt ignored and neglected. During the week I gave the example of there being no free breast screening after the age of 64 and no free cervical screening after the age of 60.
Older people have put themselves on the map, as it were. I look forward to the day when the economy comes right and I am confident the Taoiseach and his Cabinet are on a mission to show they can get this country on its feet again. I hope in a short time we will be able to reintroduce free medical cards for everyone over 70.
At a conference on older people three years ago I asked Professor Des O’Neill, professor of gerontology in Tallaght Hospital, how valuable the free medical card was to older people. I was questioning how valuable it was and I asked him whether it was worthwhile that everyone had it. He answered that the transformation in older people’s lives had been beyond belief. We all felt at that time that it was not seriously intended that everyone would get one, if the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, knows what I mean. Professor O’Neill said it was a tremendous move.
Senator Mary M. White: I will be pushing also for the vaccination for young girls aged 12 to be introduced as soon as the economy is right and for free screening for cervical cancer for women over 60.
Sexism is not acceptable, racism is not acceptable but ageism is still acceptable. Until one starts studying it, one does not realise how ageist society is. There is one matter we can be sure about. Please God, we will all get to be over 70 years, and to be 80 and 90 years. Everyone will become an older person.
I agree with Senator Nicky McFadden. I was very impressed by and thrilled with the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, as I told her afterwards, when she got up on that platform in Molesworth Street. She had no fear and she was driven. She wanted to get across her point about how she felt about it. Fair dues to her.
I look forward to us getting the economy back on track and to older people having this entitlement, like the free travel for everyone over 65. Older people deserve it. They have put their backs into it, so to speak, for the country. If a medical card will keep everyone healthier and out of hospital in the long run, then it is a good thing. However, I support the Government on these changes temporarily.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, although I fundamentally oppose the changes it introduces. It represents a full-frontal attack on the principle of equality and on the principle of universal access to social services, in particular, health services. It is an immensely regressive measure.
Listening to some of the speeches from those on the Government side, I think they share that view. On listening to the speech of Senator Mary White, I found myself agreeing with her in particular. This is an ageist, regressive Bill that represents a backward step for us. Having taken the brave step of providing universal entitlement to health services for those over 70, I would have seen that as an important and positive starting point towards a more equitable health service generally. With the cut in the budget, as represented by this Bill, we have seen a major U-turn where older people and the principle of universality are concerned.
Others have mentioned the way in which the cut was introduced in the first place. It was handled very badly by the Government — the announcement of the subsequent U-turn, the ongoing confusion about means test limits, the unnecessary distress and concern caused to those over 70, their relatives and families, and the enormous protests we saw outside Leinster House. Any of us who went out to those protests could not help but be very impressed by the commitment of those who came on them and by the real anger and concern they felt at the Government’s announcement of the cutback.
There is a fundamental and disturbing principle behind the cutback and the change in the budget represented by this Bill. The idea that medical cards should be available on an automatic basis to all over 70 could have been an important step towards the universal provision of health care in this country. Most unfortunately, in Ireland we have a two-tier health service but what the Government has done with this U-turn and with this Bill is to reinstate the two-tier system for those over 70 where we had seen at least the beginning of something more equitable based on universality.
There has been an enormous amount of self-justification by those on the Government side, albeit there has also been much criticism of the change. There have been many who have suggested that universal access meant that health care was free to millionaires. The idea that the automatic medical card for the over 70s meant that the health services were free to millionaires was a populist attack on the principle of universality. The reality about the principle is that social services should be provided under the European social model free at the point of access on the basis of need. In other words, people should be able to go to see their doctor for free without having to pay an upfront charge of €50 or €60 before they pay for any other treatments they need. The idea is that these services would be provided free at the point of access on the basis of need but they should be paid for in a equitable fashion through the taxation system on the basis of ability to pay. A much more equitable approach would have been to impose a higher levy on those with higher income rather than the flat levy initially proposed by the Government. I am glad to see that there is now a proposal to increase the levy on those earning more than €150,000, on which I am open to correction, but I would have liked to see a higher levy again on those earning more than €200,000 and more than €250,000. That would have been a much fairer way of seeking to make savings which, as we all are aware, are needed.
The attack on universality and the idea that it was somehow justified because millionaires were getting free health care was fundamentally a misrepresentation of the principle of universal access. Universal access is a more equitable way to provide social services. We all saw the enormous difficulties the means test for university grants posed in the 1980s and into the 1990s where PAYE workers were penalised because their children were not eligible for free fees while those who were self-assessed for income tax and were self-employed were able to present their earnings as lower and their children were eligible for free fees. The public concern about the inequity of the means test for university fees was one of the reasons university fees were abolished and was one of the reasons it became a popular move among the public.
There is another reason for universal access and to oppose the change proposed in this Bill. Universal access is not only fairer, but makes for a healthier society. The well-known health writer, Ms Maev-Ann Wren, emphasised this when she pointed out the enormous positive changes to the health of older people that have come about since the over 70s medical card was introduced. Chronic conditions have eased among older people, as the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, Deputy Hoctor, will be aware. Indeed, she pointed out in her speech that older people are healthier and are living longer. That is a hugely positive development for the health of our society and, inevitably, it is also positive in terms of economic benefit. Where a culture of preventative health care becomes established whereby people feel they can go free of charge to their general practitioner to take steps before a condition becomes chronic, one sees a healthier population and, ultimately, savings to the health service as a result. Older men, in particular, are reluctant to go to doctors generally. According to Ms Maev-Ann Wren’s writing, it has become easier for people over 70 to go to their doctors and to gain the benefits of preventative health care because they feel they can go for free. The culture changed as a result of the medical card and that could have been developed further.
It is no surprise that the change in this legislation has come about. I see it as part of an overall attack on equality by the Government. It has already adopted the principle of co-location of private and public hospitals, which will copperfasten the existing two-tier structure of the health service. It has done a U-turn on a positive proposal to roll out a cervical cancer vaccination programme for young girls. Today, the chief executive of the Equality Authority, Niall Crowley, resigned. I pay tribute to the work Mr. Crowley and the authority have done in promoting equality for all in society by promoting best practices and anti-discrimination measures. The enormous cutback imposed on the authority’s budget, coupled with the proposals in this Bill and the other measures I have described, represents a full frontal attack on the principle of equality and equity of access for all.
It is a pity that our infrastructure was not more solidly developed by the Government in the boom times. In a time of economic recession, when disadvantaged, older and vulnerable members of society most need our protection, it is a shame that the Government has seen fit to attack the benefits we provide for older people by means of a mean-spirited means test.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I am interested in the claims made by Senator Bacik and others that the most vulnerable and needy are being hardest hit. When the changes to income limits and the proposals on doctor only medical cards were made in the budget, massive headlines were published announcing that the most vulnerable were under attack. Anyone who claims that an income limit of €700 for a single person or €1,400 for a married couple attacks those on low and middle incomes is not being honest. We have to be honest in this debate.
I welcomed the introduction of the medical card for everyone over the age of 70. It cost a lot of money because Deputy Reilly did a good job of representing doctors. I accept the Opposition’s claim that it is our problem we did not achieve a great deal for the State. Nobody wants to remove a benefit that has already been granted but we were asked at the time why wealthy people were getting medical cards. If I was wealthy, I would not sit in a queue to see a GP but would attend a private clinic. The problem was, however, that GPs were being paid irrespective of whether they treated their wealthy patients. This will not change anything for the people who will now be excluded from the system because if they are that wealthy they will have other ways of getting treatment.
The Minister of State noted that one in 20 elderly medical card holders will be affected. I ask her to confirm that this is the aim of the Bill. Some people would have us believe the medical card is being taken from everybody over the age of 70. Some sections of the media have been very unfair in the information they provided in this regard.
Ideally, I would love to provide everyone with free medical care. I am familiar with the system in the North and those of my constituents who have sought my assistance in regard to asthma and other health problems. Sometimes I receive representations from young families who do not qualify under the means test for medical cards. In these straitened economic times, we need to concentrate on providing services for those who most need them. Whatever savings we make should be used to increase the income threshold for those under the age of 70 because if the income limits for all are set at €700 per person, we can provide access to more members of our communities.
Those who claim that the cervical cancer vaccination programme was only going to cost €10 million are not telling the full story. The vaccine alone will cost €10 million but administering it will require additional funds. The Minister for Health and Children wanted to proceed with this programme in 2009 against the advice of the HSE, which claimed it would not be physically possible to implement it before 2010.
I represent an area in which four out of ten people are on waiting lists for treatment in four hospitals. Letterkenny General Hospital has one of the longest waiting lists in the country. The National Treatment Purchase Fund is available to anyone who has seen a consultant and is waiting for an operation. People should have confidence in using this scheme rather than be put off by the possibility that their own consultants may not perform the operations. One of the difficulties we must address in respect of access to services is the length of time people wait. Letterkenny has a very good hospital and I do not want it to get a bad name for long waiting lists. If a person has been waiting three or more months for an operation, he or she should contact the NTPF irrespective of whether he or she has a medical card.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I will take five minutes and Senator Bradford will take two minutes. It is an opportune time for us to be here. I am reminded of the lyrics of a Wolfe Tones song which goes, “Here we go again, we are on the road again.” Unlike Celtic, the Government does not have a happy record of winning and makes bad decisions worse.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Unlike Senator Norris, I welcome the Minister of State to the House and applaud her temerity and courage in going to speak at the public meeting. I wish she could have been heard as democracy is about hearing all views, which I respect.
This debate is not just about social justice. It concerns the value we place on our people, particularly senior citizens. The debate is important because this generation of senior citizens, our elders, have built up Ireland and the Celtic tiger. We should thank them rather than slapping them down. It is particularly upsetting and galling to see many Senators opposite coming here today to justify the legislation and to attack, in particular, Deputy James Reilly. I remind the Members opposite that it was their Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Micheál Martin, from the great county of Cork, who cynically attempted to buy the last general election with a vote-getting exercise.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: He promised largesse. There was no need to introduce it. To paraphrase Senator Callely’s comments this morning, Fianna Fáil was the best thing since sliced bread for senior citizens so why did it need to introduce that? There was no need other than to buy the election. It was a cynical vote-getting exercise.
I was at the church and on Kildare Street when the protests took place. Those two events were the two most potent images of 2008. The people who attended were not cranks who were up for the craic with Christy Moore. They were not up for a day out on the bus with free passes. They attended because they were afraid and wanted to keep their medical card. They felt a genuine passion for what they wanted and, for the first time ever, they took to the streets in numbers.
I salute our senior citizens because of that. I say “well done” to them. They should not hand back their medical cards or co-operate with the Department of Health and Children. To hell with it. We have treated them badly so we must send a clear message that we must cherish all our citizens equally under the Constitution. The Government has not done so in the budget. The young, old, vulnerable, handicapped and disabled have been robbed and insulted by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.
I know it is tough for the Minister of State and I appreciate where she is coming from. It is the reality. We could go back to the big billboards in 1987 which stated that health cuts hurt the old, the poor and the handicapped. Let us take to the streets again.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Minister of State should go back to the former Tánaiste and tell her to forget co-location and public private partnership in health. We should have universality and equal access for all our citizens.
We have heard a great mantra from Government about millionaires, but public servants such as gardaí and teachers are not millionaires and we should not penalise them. Some people are fearful of making decisions on their health as a consequences of the budget. Senator Frances Fitzgerald was correct this morning in stating that this is contradictory legislation. We are talking about quality of life.
I go back to the mantra from Fianna Fáil about the budgetary increases in pensions. What about inflation and the cost of living? What about the cost of health care? It has all spiralled upwards under Fianna Fáil. We are saying to our elderly citizens that the Government does not care about them; it got the votes, so good luck to them. The Progressive Democrats are a failed political ideology heading off to the sunset.
Senator Paul Bradford: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House. I am glad a Fianna Fáil Minister of State is presenting this legislation because, in essence, we have a Government dominated by Fianna Fáil. Generally speaking, the former Tánaiste and the current Minister takes the blame for all Government decisions relating to health services, but collective decisions are made at Cabinet level. We saw from the freedom of information request made some time after the budget that the medical card fiasco was brought to the attention of the Minister for Finance two or three days before his Budget Statement. Fianna Fáil, more than anybody else, is responsible for this legislation.
A few of my colleagues spoke about universality. It might be argued by some that universality is a difficult concept to put into practice but from an education perspective, at first, second and third level, universality has been implemented. What we have in education can also be applied to the health services if there is a willingness to make sufficient investment.
As the previous speaker, with others, noted, no decision caused such significant distress for such little financial windfall for the Government. Even as late as this week, the Minister for Health and Children, at the health committee, seemed unable to tell us exactly what savings can be made by the change in the law. It appears savings are very modest at a cost of great distress, concern and worry to a significant number of elderly people. For that reason, this decision must been reversed.
We all spoke through the years about the contribution made to this society by the elderly, with the Celtic tiger and the building up of Ireland during the much more barren previous years. Those people are now being penalised, which is very unfair.
The Minister must go back to the drawing board. We will debate health service entitlements much more over the next 12 months, but I hope the Minister is willing to reflect further on this legislation, even at this late stage, to stop this hidden attack on the elderly.
Senator Larry Butler: I support this Bill. We found ourselves in a very difficult position this year to maintain the services we already had. The change in the medical card system had to be addressed. We made mistakes in how we communicated the message to the elderly so there was much confusion. That we addressed this matter shows we were listening, and 95% of the people in this country who need a medical card will have it. Universality does not apply to millionaires. The Labour Party was on the street telling people that everybody should have a medical card, including millionaires. I would like to know where that policy is now.
It is important to indicate to the House the great support we have given to elderly people over the past seven or eight years. We have made great strides. We have seen the largest expansion of our services for older people and 10,000 older people now receive care at home. This is a major initiative. In addition, more than 10,000 older people now receive care in their homes, which represents an additional 700,000 more hours of help since 2005. That is a major improvement in the health service.
A few years ago, almost no older person received nursing or therapy care at home, only in a hospital or a nursing home. The Government has now introduced home care packages under which nursing and therapies are provided at home. This year, 11,000 people will benefit from this package. This is a major improvement when one considers the budgetary difficulties we have due to scarce resources. It is important to note these matters.
Since 2004, the Government has increased the budget for services for older people by €540 million. As a result of the budget, €55 million is being provided to implement the fair deal and we have protected the home help and home care services.
As regards taxation, more than 50,000 elderly people were taken out of the tax net between 2003 and 2007. Income exemptions for those aged 65 and over stand at €20,000 for single people and €40,000 for married people, which is more than double the level in 1997. These were not increased in the budget for 2009.
In the social welfare budget for 2009, the maximum personal rates of payment for contributory, non-contributory and transition State pensions are being increased by €7 per week from the start of January 2009. We will probably have a zero inflation rate next year, which means the increases will be worth more. It is important to note these increases when the Opposition claims the Government has done nothing for the elderly. We have done a great deal of work for the elderly and will continue to do so, but obviously we are constrained by the current budgetary problems and will have to work our way out of them.
The value of the fuel allowance is being increased by €2 to €20 per week, or 11%, with effect from January. The duration of the fuel season is also being extended by another two weeks from April 2009, bringing it to 32 weeks in total.
Senator Larry Butler: Since 2007, the telephone allowance scheme has given pensioners the option of having a mobile phone instead of a fixed landline. In 2006, the fuel allowance was increased by €5 a week to €14 and this year we increased it by a further €4 to €18 a week. This means that the level of the fuel allowance, which is paid to 274,000 recipients, will have doubled in the past two years. I want to place on record the fact that this constitutes a major improvement in support for elderly people.
We have done a great deal of work for the elderly in the past five or six years. Their situation has improved in terms of comfort and facilities. Numerous aspects of life for the elderly have been improved, including the seven-day travel pass. I commend the budget for 2009.
Senator Shane Ross: I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I am delighted she is here to listen to what Opposition Members have to say in this important debate, which is not necessarily about cuts. Members on both sides of the House understand the need for cuts across the board in public expenditure. There is no problem about that. What amazes me about this particular measure, however, is the extraordinary insensitivity of the Government towards the feelings and psychology of older people. It is essential that we should have cuts in public expenditure, which in monetary terms dig far deeper than this particular measure does. It is strange, however, that the Government has decided to victimise a reasonably small section of the population who are almost by definition not only vulnerable but also scared. People over 70 worry enormously about their future, whether they will have enough to live on and what the Government is offering them in terms of subsidies and health care. This Bill is a direct attack on that psychological condition. It is so insensitive that it makes one wonder whether the Government, including Fianna Fáil, which is traditionally in touch with older people, has to some extent lost the political knack it had for so long for avoiding political minefields.
The Bill is also deeply unfair because it takes a swipe at people who are not especially well off or rich. The thresholds in the legislation are not very high. They will make a considerable difference to people who would not consider themselves or be considered by any standards to be rich. It is not just a matter of telling them that they must pay for particular medicines over a certain price threshold to reduce the number of medical cards.
I referred to the psychology of the elderly people because they will be deterred from going to doctors and district nurses or their substitutes. Consequently, the medical conditions of some will worsen. I do not claim to be an expert in the minds of the elderly, but they are defensive about their health and are particularly concerned about whether they will have enough to live on for the rest of their lives. Irrespective of whether they can afford it, they will curtail their visits to doctors, district nurses, their substitutes or private care because they are too expensive. The frequency of their medical treatment will lessen and their medical conditions will worsen. That is inexorably true.
I cannot understand why, for so little money, the Government has decided to do so much damage to the elderly. Were the Government serious about making cuts in health, it would be difficult to look further than the HSE. Rather than being a political cliché, it is well known, even according to people inside the HSE, that the wastage therein would make FÁS look to be in the ha’penny place were the former examined properly. The political protection given to the HSE is unjustifiable. As every insider will assert, its budget is wasted in certain areas, although not altogether. The attitude in the HSE is that public money used for health is sacrosanct. While it should be sacrosanct as public money, much of it is being used for administration, bureaucracy, duplication and other inefficiencies that should have been addressed.
I do not understand why the Government does not approach State agencies and tell them that their budgets are to be cut, not by dramatic amounts, but by a few hundred million euro in each case. The Government should tell them to get on with it and then watch so that front-line services are not affected. Let the agencies make cuts in waste. I welcome the establishment of the second bord snip, but it will report years too late. I hope that its recommendations will be dramatic and painful for those who are making gains from the health service, not the patients. That is possible. The service should be patient-led, not bureaucracy-led, and that problem must be faced.
Will the Bill prompt the elderly to spend less money on their health insurance? The number of cuts that people on €35,000 per year can make is limited. Many of them have obligations to children, grandchildren and others. Almost by definition, they tend to be selfless in making cuts in their personal budgets. This matter relates to the question of why the amounts charged by the VHI, which is run by the Government, are so high. If people are to be charged for health in one area, which should not be the case, why should VHI’s charges continue to increase? It is part of the health system because it offers a health service.
Senator Shane Ross: The Government could consider two issues, namely, the HSE and the VHI, which it fully owns. What in the name of God has happened to the plans to do something with the VHI? I am tired of discussing it in the House. Will the Government sell all or part of it or make it more efficient? The VHI is not an efficient body. It was a monopoly for a long time and monopolistic traits still survive within it. The Government could insist on efficiencies and reductions in costs so that the VHI can compete on an equal basis and save costs to the Exchequer. It could either be sold or make the Government profits that could be reinvested in the health service.
Will the Minster of State address another point? Like other Senators, I have received many representations concerning those who will be marginally over the threshold. Yesterday, I spoke to a retired teacher who will be €5 over the threshold. If people are above the threshold because they are in receipt of pensions, it will cost them €100 per month, for example, which they can ill afford. Is there no case for making a generous allowance and grading it? I am afraid——
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State and appreciate her patience in bearing with the House for so long. The budget’s announcement was handled badly — I make no bones about that — but I believe that millionaires should not qualify for medical cards. The problem lay in how we went about making the change, but we have tried to rectify the situation. Some 95% of the people in question will qualify for a medical card. This is a workable solution.
I am upset by how many Senators have created anxiety among people today. Those earning more than €800 per week will not attend their doctors if they have the flu or need medical tests. It is not correct to make claims at a time when we should be protecting and helping those who may not qualify as much as we can. No one earning more than €700 will experience difficulties. Many of those to whom I spoke told me that it was high time that we correct the claim, which should never have been raised in the first instance. However, it is water under the bridge and we will not rehash that territory.
I come from a medical background and possess considerable connections with that profession through my immediate and extended family, but I do not hold a torch for them. When I leave the Chamber, I will receive telephone calls. Doctors were wrong to seize the opportunity to put the Government over a barrel and negotiate a fee of €690 in respect of people over 70 years of age presenting to them for flu injections. Such people might not visit their doctors for the remainder of the year. Doctors with patients in nursing homes were paid over €900 in respect of each of them. That was not correct.
I was shocked when I examined the detail of how the medical card scheme for those over 70 operated. The position had to be corrected. I have no doubt that we went the wrong way about establishing and operating the scheme. However, we have taken remedial action and the Irish Medical Organisation is on board and involved in negotiations on how a proper and fair capitation grant might be arrived at in respect of each patient. That is a good development.
There may be some people whose incomes will be just over the threshold and there will be a possibility to negotiate in respect of such individuals, particularly if there is a serious illness involved.
We have dealt with many of the teething problems relating to this scheme over a long period. The only matter about which I am concerned is reinsurance. Will the Minister of State indicate how this will work in respect of those who have not been paying insurance for a couple of years? Mixed views have been expressed with regard to this matter and the jury is out in respect of it.
I welcome the Bill, which has been the subject of a great deal of work. The public supports the Minister of State. I accept that the Government was insensitive but members of the public have come around. Yesterday we discussed cutbacks in all areas of society and the rationalisation of State agencies. In this debate we are discussing the making of sacrifices in the area of health. Next week we may be obliged to make sacrifices in respect of education. Such sacrifices must be made and we require support in respect of them from Members on all sides to get the country back up and running. I feel strongly about this matter. There are many good Senators across the floor who say things merely for the sake of offering opposition. I do not think they believe what they are saying half of the time.
We must put the country first. I am glad that we have taken the route of making cuts. The millionaires and those who earn large amounts of money, such as doctors, lawyers and other professionals welcome the fact that we have introduced this measure. They never wanted medical cards in the first instance.
We have now got it right. I put my hands up, however, and state that the Government was insensitive. I apologise to the public for the way in which it went about dealing with this matter. However, I am glad we have taken action. I agree with the principle behind the Bill.
When the social history of the 21st century is eventually written, the removal of medical cards for certain people over 70 will be seen as iniquitous and an unmitigated disaster. This represents a terrible attack on those older people who paid 60% tax, who educated themselves, who lived through the scourge of emigration and the bleakness of the 1950s, who endured many hardships and who did not have access to the opportunities we enjoy. It is wrong that those people were targeted. It is equally wrong that the initial scheme was introduced in a politically opportunistic fashion, in the absence of proper negotiation and as an election gimmick. The origins of this tragedy lie in the fact that proper negotiations to ensure that the scheme was established on a rational basis and, perhaps, in an incremental form never took place.
The fact that wrong was done initially does not justify the visitation on people of an even greater wrong. If, on my way home this evening, I were responsible for causing a minor car accident, I should not seek to solve matters by extricating myself from the first incident and then causing an even greater one. What the Government is doing is an unmitigated disaster and it represents an unjustifiable assault on young people.
Fine Gael is approaching this matter on the premise that, in government, it would establish a universal health care system. We believe in the concept of universality in the context of the health and education systems. We will establish such systems when we are returned to Government. We are working on the details relating to these systems at present.
I do not accept the Government’s proposition that ultimately only 20,000 of the 140,000 people over 70 who have medical cards will be affected by this measure. I remain to be convinced that this is the case. I hope the Minister of State will be able to uphold the validity of the figure to which I refer.
Little information has been provided in respect of the means test. The income level will not be index linked. That is a matter of critical importance. It is also critical that the means test should be based on gross income. We must reward those who worked hard for many years and who, by exerting the greatest of effort, accumulated a little wealth in the worst of times. When one examines the position of a person with an income of €700 per week and factors in that he or she will have a tax liability, exclusive of PRSI, of €5,530 per year, one comes to the conclusion that he or she will have a net income of €595 per week and that his or her card will be removed.
People will be allowed to have savings of €36,000. For many of the elderly, that figure is not significant. What will be the position of those who have down-sized and sold their family homes, who sold their prime residence before entering nursing homes or who accumulated properties in different locations in the interests of providing their children with accommodation? Will there be no justice for those people, with integrity and honour, who paid tax at the highest rates in the worst of times?
It is neither proper nor acceptable that, in a 21st century republic, retired teachers, gardaí and public servants should be deemed to be ineligible for medical cards. What is the position with regard to living expenses? I accept that they decreased somewhat in recent weeks but the cost of fuel has been escalating for some time. What will happen to people who will be expected to pay exceptionally high nursing home bills out of a weekly income of €595? There are many variables and unknowns in respect of this matter because the scheme was developed on the hoof. That was the wrong way to proceed.
There is a very interesting aspect that arises in respect of this matter. The Minister for Health and Children stated in the Dáil that she would accommodate people with cancer and those in special circumstances who are required to cope with exceptional expenses with discretionary medical cards. That is fair enough. However, the budget relating to discretionary medical cards has been frozen and there has been no indication that it will eventually be increased to accommodate those who require such cards. Therein lies a difficulty.
The point made earlier that people visit their doctors, community medical services, physiotherapists, occupational therapists etc., more often by virtue of having a medical card, which is an ultimate saving to the economy, is important. If a person has an income of €595 a week, substantial living expenses and is the type of person who is thrifty and has saved €36,000 or a fraction thereof, that person will visit his or her doctor less often. Ultimately, that is bad for the person concerned but it also creates an additional cost on the system, which is a serious concern.
My fundamental proposition regarding this measure is that rather than trying to patch what was clearly an error of gigantuan proportions, it was best to admit the error in a manly fashion — people would have accepted that — reverse the position and focus, as we suggested, on the reduction of the doctors’ fees and the cost of generic drugs. Also, all parties in this House should accept and move towards adopting the principle of universality.
We know there is a need for cutbacks but we must all affirm, collectively, on this Friday on the eve of Christmas, in the Republic of Ireland, that we will not repeat the unmitigated errors of the past 11 years on the backs of the old people of this country. My mother is 88 years old. I am very proud of her and I am horrified that people like her would become the victims of our idiocy over generations. Are we to correct the ills of the past on the backs of women like her who worked in the worst of times? The Minister should think about that.
It is important to clear up one aspect. It was not the Opposition Members on this side of the House who caused the panic, worry or hysteria. It was the actions of the Government and its inability to communicate clearly what it had done, the people who would be affected and its strategy to deal with people in distress or those with questions about the position in which they find themselves. Myself or my colleagues did not whip up anybody over that; it was the actions of the Government, its incompetence and inability to explain clearly what it was seeking to do.
My first point concerns the principle of universality. I have heard many Members on the Government side argue this morning that millionaires should not have access to medical cards. I disagree with them in that regard. They should have such access. I believe in the principle of universality and in it extending to public services, access to which should be potentially open to everybody. The reason I believe millionaires or High Court judges, which is the example I hear used often, should have access to medical cards is that they should have the ability to be in the same queue as me waiting to see a doctor, in the same accident and emergency room or queuing to use the same medical service. The same thinking underpins the ideal that all people, regardless of their background or class, should be educated in the same schools and treated equally. Credit must be given to the Government on this count in that in this respect at least it is being consistent. The same thinking that leads to the withdrawal of the medical card from a certain group of people within our society, is the rationale that underpins the idea of co-located hospitals. That philosophy is one I entirely reject——
Senator Paschal Donohoe: The second point I want to put on record relates to the people who will be punished and castigated on foot of this measure. As many colleagues said, it will be people such as teachers and nurses who have had the temerity to work a bit harder than expected and clock up hours in overtime, substitute work or whatever, who will be penalised as a result of this measure. We should not stop at drawing examples from people working in the public sector services. This measure will also target those working in private sector services who have worked at middle management level in call centres and other services who have had the audacity to work harder than expected to earn more, on which their pensions have been generated.
I emphasise we are not discussing the loss of only the medical card for these people. The medical card is a passport to a universal suite of services on which many people depend to get by, whether it be access to products or services to help spouses, partners, mothers or fathers who suffer from incontinence or access to the services of a chiropodist or a public health nurse. Access to those services for these people will be under attack on foot of this measure. The foundations upon which this policy is based are flawed. At a time when we should be showing solidarity as a country and we have heard many calls for patriotism to look after the interests of the country as a whole, this philosophy spurns that.
I will conclude with a question, which many colleagues raised. How much money will be saved by this measure? I have no doubt that once the administrative and the information technology costs are factored in, we will be left with cents in savings. We should be clear in pointing out that this measure is not driven by economic necessity but by an attack on the principle of universal benefits, on which the Government has a great track record.
Senator John Paul Phelan: I do not have much to say that has not been said already. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is opportune to have this discussion, although outrage has been expressed in these Houses and elsewhere publicly since the announcement on budget day that the automatic entitlement to a medical card for the over 70s would be removed.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Donohoe, who has put very well the case in support of the principle of universality. I have always favoured the notion of universality. I regard myself as being slightly to the right of centre on political issues in general. There are some services that the State should and does provide, particularly in health care and education, but there are also other services. We have universal arrangements in many aspects of the services provided to the public. A universal system of education operates at primary and secondary level. Pensioners already have universal access to free travel once they reach pension age. Therefore, the principle of universality clearly exists.
In 2001, the Government decided to extend universal access to a medical card to all people over the age of 70. It was one of the most cynical political gimmicks I have seen in my time of watching politics and it has been exposed as a cynical gimmick by the nature in which the Government is removing it now. If it believed in the principle of universality at the time it extended such access — it said it did — it certainly would not be seeking to remove such entitlement at this juncture. Such access was introduced in 2001 in advance of an election to buy people’s votes, which it succeeded in doing, but equally the removal of this measure will succeed in removing votes from the Government when it comes to the next election. The Government deserves the scorn of the electorate to which it has been subjected in recent weeks. I join others in paying tribute to the efforts of the pensioners who gathered on the street outside this House and in other areas, those who contacted their local representatives and made known their views. They forced the Government to change the proposal it announced initially but the Government has persisted in this regard.
Senator Donohoe made an important concluding remark. He suggested that the savings from this change will be minimal because the new income threshold that will apply, which is far too low, will automatically demand a certain level of means testing and administration, which will eat into the funding that is in place for the medical card provision.
I concur with Senator O’Reilly’s comments on the discretionary medical card. The Minister gave an assurance in the other House that the discretionary card would be extended in future, yet the funding for that scheme appears to have been frozen. I do not see how those two issues can be squared.
Senator Butler stated the Opposition has not acknowledged the efforts the Government has made to support pensioners in recent years. I have done it on many occasions and the point has also been made by other speakers. There has been significant improvement in the lot of pensioners in recent years in terms of pension entitlements, and the provision of medical cards for over 70s was a significant improvement when it was introduced in 2001, but now it is being removed, unfairly, from them.
Since the introduction of the scheme it has never been properly explained how the Government made such a ham-fisted effort of it, in terms of not knowing how many people would qualify for an over 70s medical card. The Government did not appear to know how many people in the country were over 70 or at any rate it made a radical under-estimation. As a result, the Government did not know how much the scheme would cost. That was a ridiculous state of affairs.
I will emulate Senator O’Reilly who referred to his personal situation. My father died before Christmas last year. He had a medical card to which he was automatically entitled. That was the case for everyone aged over 70 until the budget measure resulted in the Bill before the House. I do not think he ever used it but it was a source of comfort to him and to us as a family to know he had it. People like him worked all their lives in this country at a time when taxes were high and many people left the country because they could not find employment. Those people who stayed helped to build the economy that became the Celtic tiger and they should be entitled to the comfort provided by a medical card, even it they never use it.
As Senator Donohoe indicated, it was not the Opposition who stoked up this problem; it was the decision of the Government to announce the removal of the automatic entitlement. That was an appalling decision and an insult to pensioners. I appeal to the Government to rethink its position on the issue, even at this stage.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Máire Hoctor): I have listened with interest to the contributions of Senators and I thank them for their participation in the debate. As I indicated at the outset, with the enactment of the Bill, persons aged 70 and over will have three gateways to a medical card. First, under the new gross income limits, we expect 95% of persons aged over 70 will qualify because their income will be below the new, high limits of €700 a week for a single person, or €1,400 for a couple. Second, persons whose gross income is above the limit may still apply for a medical card using the standard net income means test that applies for persons aged under 70. That takes account of personal circumstances such as high outgoings on nursing home fees. Third, under the discretionary medical card arrangements, a person may still apply for and be granted a medical card if his or her health circumstances cause undue hardship. Many persons with a terminal illness, for example, are granted medical cards, even if they do not qualify under the means test.
As has been pointed out during the course of the debate, the objective of the General Medical Services, GMS, scheme is to ensure the medical card benefit is available to those who are unable, without undue hardship, to meet the costs of health services for themselves and their dependants. In the current difficult economic climate, the Government has decided that continuing to provide automatic entitlement to a medical card for all persons aged 70 years and over, irrespective of means, is not sustainable. The new arrangements proposed in the Bill will deliver on the Government’s dual objective of prioritising the provision of medical cards to those most in need while at the same time achieving a more financially sustainable scheme for persons aged 70 and over. The Bill will help to ensure 19 out of every 20 persons over 70 will continue to hold a medical card.
Persons who had attained 70 years on 31 December 2008 and had full eligibility on age grounds will continue to have full eligibility as long as their gross income does not exceed the specified limits. Those limits are €700 gross per week in the case of a single person, excluding any income from savings or similar investments whose principal value is €36,000 or less, and €1,400 gross per week in the case of a couple, excluding any income from savings or similar investments whose principal value is €72,000 or less. Persons in this cohort will be required to self-assess and, where they conclude that their gross income is in excess of the specified income limits must, by 2 March 2009, make a declaration to the Health Service Executive, HSE, to that effect. That answers the question asked by some speakers about the procedure for persons whose income is in excess of the threshold. I understand letters will go out early in the new year to that effect. All persons in this cohort can continue to use their medical card as normal during the two-month period up to 2 March.
In the case of persons who attain the age of 70 on or after 1 January 2009, they will have to make an application to the Health Service Executive and provided they meet the income, age and ordinary residence criteria, they will receive confirmation from the HSE that they have full eligibility and will continue to have full eligibility as long as their gross income does not exceed the limit. In line with the Government’s commitment, income will not be imputed from property and only the net rental income, calculated as gross income less any costs necessarily associated with the rental of the property, will be included for the purposes of the Bill.
I wish to deal with specific points raised by Senators in the debate. Senator Fitzgerald was the first to speak on the issue and she referred to Government policy. She was correct to do so as it is our intention to support persons to remain at home for as long as possible. We cannot but recognise that fact. Since the introduction of the free medical card in 2001, many supports were put in place to provide care in the home for persons in need. A total of 11,000 persons benefit from home care packages. Some 53,000 persons avail of home help.
We must recognise the fee structure for general practitioners had to be changed. Speakers failed to refer to the fact that the population has increased and that the cohort aged over 70 will increase dramatically in the coming years. For example, within two years we will have 13,000 additional persons over 70. According to the figures on which we have based the legislation, 95% of them will avail of the over 70s medical card free of charge. A fee of €640 for GPs was not sustainable. In fairness to GPs, they recognised that. They said to me personally that the situation could not continue.
Senator Fitzgerald inquired what would go next in regard to universal entitlement. Assurances have been given by the Government that the universal benefit such as the household benefits package will remain intact for those who continue to avail of it under the social welfare scheme. That commitment will hold for as long as Fianna Fáil is in Government. We will stand by it.
Senator Fitzgerald inquired also about the savings that would accrue following the enactment of the legislation. Senators on the other side of the House questioned the Government’s ability to deliver on the savings originally outlined in the budget and sought clarification, which I am happy to give. As outlined previously, under the new arrangements it is expected that 95%, or 19 out of 20, persons aged over 70 will continue to have medical cards. It is estimated that this will result in a saving of approximately €20 million in 2009, taking account of GP capitation fees, drug costs and superannuation.
With regard to the single GP capitation rate, the Government appointed Mr. Eddie Sullivan to make recommendations on a new single annual capitation fee, to be paid to general practitioners in respect of medical card holders aged 70 and over. Mr. Sullivan recommended the single capitation fee of €290, which will come into effect subject to the making of the proposed legislative changes from 1 January 2009. Mr. Sullivan’s recommendations were accepted by the Government on 29 October 2008. Mr. Sullivan estimated this would generate savings in the order of €16 million in 2009.
I disagree with my colleague Senator Callely who suggested there was an erosion of these figures. I must state emphatically that there was no erosion of the figures announced originally. The Government believes there is potential for significant savings of at least €64 million in drug costs without compromising on patient care. Accordingly, it has decided to establish a process under the chairmanship of Dr. Michael Barry to develop recommendations for good practice which will secure safe and effective prescribing for patients while maximising the potential for economy in the use of public funds. The initial report from Dr. Barry has been received by the Department and is being considered.
Senator Prendergast referred to callousness and suggested the Government was creating hardship for older people. I remind her, as a fellow Tipperary woman, that the HSE in south Tipperary rightly takes great pride in the fact that it has the highest number of home helpers per capita in the country, particularly among those over 70. I laud the HSE for this because it has operated a very good home help system. Home help staff seem to be much more available in south Tipperary than in most other places, where it is sometimes difficult to get people to provide a home help service regularly.
I remind Senator Prendergast of a remark by her Labour Party colleague, Deputy Liz McManus, who, in November 2004, stated, “If any millionaire, whether tax paying or not, is over 70 years of age, they automatically qualify for the medical card. This is an obscenity when compared to the experience of ordinary hard-working families.”
Senator O’Toole asked whether it would be fairer to give the free medical card to people over 80. I would respond by asking whether it is not fairer to allow 95% of people over 70 to retain their medical cards. The Senator suggested the automatic entitlement of persons over 70 to the medical card should be replaced by an automatic entitlement for persons over 80. While the number of persons over 80 is less than that over 70, such a proposal would still mean a particular group, albeit a smaller one, would have medical cards regardless of their income levels. The Government is not prepared to return to allowing a group of people, irrespective of age, to have a medical card without reference to their means.
Senator O’Toole also asked whether people should be entitled to buy back their medical cards at a rate of €640, which was the levy charged to the State by the general practitioners. I assume he is associating this figure with the higher GP capitation fee of €640. He mentioned €650 but the figure was €640 and will be until 31 December 2008. This sum pertained to those who received the medical card on age grounds having reached the age of 70. Other costs need to be taken into consideration in respect of average medical card costs for those over 70, such as drug costs. The average cost of a medical card for a person of 70 and over who obtained the card on age grounds was actually €2,400.
A very important question was asked about those living in nursing homes with an outlay of perhaps €4,000 per month and whose income threshold exceeds the given figure of €700 per week. If such a person does not qualify in respect of the gross threshold of €700 per week, an assessment can be made for the medical card under the normal medical card means-testing arrangement whereby a person’s net income is considered. Under this assessment, it is highly likely that a person with a monthly outlay of €4,000 in fees to remain in a nursing home would qualify, especially after medical expenses are taken into account.
Senator Twomey seemed to concentrate particularly on the fact that there was an increase in pay for Deputies and Senators. He referred to this several times. My colleagues and I accepted a 10% reduction in our salaries as Deputies and Ministers of State. Did Senator Twomey hand back 10% of his salary given that he placed so much emphasis on this matter?
Senator Twomey asked whether I, as Minister of State responsible for older people, was consulted on the measure to be adopted on foot of budget 2009. I was not consulted prior to the budget announcement. On the morning of the announcement, I and the other Ministers of State were told about the measure in the office of the Minister, Deputy Harney. This was the first time it was discussed. That does not come as a surprise because we understand that the budget is discussed at Cabinet, where there is strict confidentially. Ministers of State are not privileged to hear of Cabinet discussions.
I do not recall Senator Twomey referring to the fact that he should declare an interest as a general practitioner in respect of this Bill. The flat fee to which he referred is €290, which was the recommended fee. However, the fee of €927 remains the fee for general practitioners who attend to people in long-stay nursing home care. It has not changed and the Senator failed to recognise and mention that.
Senator Twomey suggested it would cost only an additional €5 million to extend the medical card to all people over 70. In calculating the cost of the medical card for persons of 70 and over, a range of costs must be considered, including the GP capitation fee and drugs costs. Therefore, to give the medical card to the 20,000 who will lose the card under the new arrangements would cost in the region of €20 million and not the €5 million being suggested by Senator Twomey.
Senator Norris referred to widows and widowers, on which subject I want to advise the House. The Senator incorrectly referred to Senator Shatter as the person who introduced the amendment. It was not he because it was a Government amendment. In the very early stages of preparing this legislation, I brought to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Harney, the anomaly that would deprive a bereaved person of the medical card on the death of a spouse and I stated this would be quite harsh. The Minister advised this House some weeks ago that she would do all she could to protect the medical cards of the bereaved. This matter was the subject of detailed consultation with the Office of the Attorney General. The advice it gave was that a balance must be struck between protecting the position of widows and widowers, on the one hand, and avoiding discriminating against people who have never been married to each other.
In summary, the advice we obtained was that a provision that allowed a widow or widower to keep the medical card indefinitely based on the married couple’s income limit of €1,400 would be unlikely to withstand scrutiny in the courts if it were to be challenged, for example, by a single person who had been refused a medical card because his or her income exceeded the single person’s income threshold of €700.
It was considered, however, that if a time limit was specified, it would be less likely to be successfully challenged. The time specified in the amendment agreed in the Dáil yesterday is three years from the date of death of the spouse. This will provide a reasonable period for the widow or widower, while adjusting to her or his new circumstances, to not have to worry about a medical card. At the end of the three year period, the widow or widower will, of course, be entitled to apply for a medical card, either under the new scheme in the Bill, where the gross income is less than €700, or the ordinary medical card scheme where she or he will be assessed on net income. Even if the net income of the widow or widower exceeds the HSE guidelines, it would still be open to the executive to grant a medical card on grounds of medical need and hardship.
I believe that Senator Nicky McFadden mentioned savings achieved as a result of the records of 10,000 deceased persons remaining on the medical card database. The HSE updates the medical card list on an ongoing basis, and of course GPs are obliged to inform the HSE when a patient dies or, indeed, moves to a new address. Information from the Department of Social and Family Affairs as well as from GPs assists in this process. I would be concerned, of course, if that was the case and the Department of Health and Children will discuss the matter with the HSE if the figures turn out to be accurate.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: Perhaps the Senator will provide us with the source of that information. It is in the interests of everyone that such information is made known and I would be delighted if she would do that.
I will address the question of the availability of health services for non-medical card holders. Senator Donohoe expressed the concern that persons aged 70 and over who lose a medical card may not then be able to avail of other health services. I want to give some reassurance on this issue. Under section 45(7) of the Health Act 1970, any person who does not have full eligibility, but who in relation to a particular service which is available to persons with full eligibility is considered by the HSE to be unable, without undue hardship to provide that service for himself or herself, or his or her dependents, shall be deemed to be a person with full eligibility. Such services could include public health nurses, therapy services, appliances and so on.
On the question of people who cancelled private health insurance on getting a medical card, as raised by Senator Ross, I have been advised the VHI will reinstate insurance cover where the person pays the balance of the insurance premiums, irrespective of whether they have since become ill. In response to Senator Ross’s question about persons who are just over the threshold, they may still qualify for a medical card under the new arrangements, under the normal means testing arrangements where a person is assessed financially on a net basis. If he or she does not qualify on either of the above assessment methods, such a person may still be considered for a medical card on a discretionary basis if he or she experiences undue hardship in obtaining medical and surgical services for himself or herself, or his or her dependants.
I believe I have addressed most of if not all the issues raised. I thank Members of the Seanad for their patience. The question of a great budget was raised today. I believe it was a great budget in view of the fact that we are on a loss of €10 million a day. Yes, indeed, it was a great budget and I was happy to applaud the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on the day he produced it.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: I support the accurate information as delivered by my party colleague, Senator Geraldine Feeney, today. The wording was absolutely correct, where she said she had met one person from Sligo who said that she was up for the craic on the day of the protest. I reiterate what she said and make clear——
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carty, John.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Corrigan, Maria.||Daly, Mark.|
|de Búrca, Déirdre.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||White, Mary M.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Twomey, Liam.|
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