The HSE owes thousands of hospital patients and nursing home residents, who were wrongly charged a combined €450m for free public services, tens of millions of euro, officials have admitted, writes Fiachra O'Cionnaith
HSE chief financial officer and interim deputy director general Stephen Mulvany confirmed the situation at a lengthy meeting of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee amid concerns that elderly people have so far failed to be repaid all funds.
Speaking to the committee — alongside HSE director general Tony O’Brien, national director for social care Pat Healy, and others — Mr Mulvany confirmed that over the past decade €450m has been repaid to 20,283 people across the State who were wrongly charged for public services. He said this is because of the botched 1976 Health (charges for inpatient services) scheme, which wrongly led to some people, who had medical cards for hospital and nursing home-related services, being charged for services that should have been freely provided.
Questioned on the controversy by unaligned Independent TD Catherine Connolly, Mr Mulvany accepted there have been delays in repaying the funds.
However, stressing the HSE has no intention of benefiting from the money, he said the organisation is currently calculating the exact amount that needs to be returned to each individual.
When two separate interest rate additions are assessed this year, he said a final report — and resulting transfer of payments — will be made next year, with an expected €36m likely to be added to the bill.
Acknowledging the problems with the situation, HSE director general Tony O’ Brien said charges were “wrongly imposed on eligible persons since 1976” until 2006, when the Health (repayment scheme) Act 2006 was enacted.
While application for the repayments have now closed, he said more than 35,000 people sought money to be returned to them, the majority of whom were considered legitimate cases.
Meanwhile, the HSE has defended its decision not to repay dozens of helpline workers at crisis-hit suicide prevention charity Console three months’ of lost earnings because it “did not acquire liability for unpaid bills” when taking over the charity.
Console was last summer embroiled in a scandal after it emerged its now-removed chief executive Paul Kelly was spending hundreds of thousands of vital funds on his and his family’s leisure activities. The charity was put into receivership by the HSE, with Pieta House taking over services.
However, tens of thousands of euro are owed to dozens of innocent workers who remained available to help people in need throughout the controversy.
In response to a PAC demand for clarity, the HSE wrote to say it is not their responsibility to repay the bill.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.