Rowdy scenes erupted in the Dáil today as Opposition TDs tried to block a controversial Budget measure to remove medical cards from thousands of pensioners.
Fine Gael and Labour claimed the decision had angered and frightened elderly citizens and it needed to be reversed.
The move to strip automatic entitlement to medical cards from over-70s is due to be voted on in the Dáil in coming days.
Fianna Fáil backbenchers called a special meeting of their parliamentary party to discuss the issue.
Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, who was representing the Government in the Dáil, said the measure would be included in the new Social Welfare Bill due to come before parliament within two weeks.
She accused Opposition TDs of trying to muddy the waters and claimed that High Court judges, senior civil servants and former ministers could access a medical card under the current rules.
“You’re robbing the old people,” shouted Fine Gael TD Michael Ring amid the rowdy exchanges in the Dáil.
At one point Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue threatened to suspend business to restore order.
“If this continues, the House can’t continue,” he told TDs as he continually clanged his bell.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called on pensioners to ask their local TDs how they were going to vote on the issue.
He said: “We have Fianna Fáil TDs running like frightened foxes from a forest fire and leaving this in the hands of the Minister for Health.”
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny called on Health Minister Mary Harney to come into the Dáil to clarify the operation of the new measure.
He said that former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy introduced the free entitlement to all OAPs in 1999 to thank them for building up the country.
“You have offended elderly people here by what you have done. You have done them down,” Mr Kenny told Ms Coughlan.
The Health Service Executive claimed the measure will affect about 20,000 over-70s who will lose their entitlement to the medical card because their incomes are too high.
About 70,000 OAPs will qualify for a new 400 euro a year Health Support Payment introduced in the Budget.
Earlier, Environment Minister John Gormley said that the Government had to make tough decisions and stick by them.
“Nobody likes to make unpopular decisions but they have to be made for the sake of the country.”
Age Action Ireland is holding a public meeting next week to hear the concerns of angry pensioners.