Almost 35,000 women got the morning-after pill for free under the medical card scheme during the past three years at a cost of nearly €650,000 to the HSE.
An average of 31 medical-card holders were issued with the emergency contraceptive pill every day between 2014 and 2016, data released under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed.
The emergency hormonal contraception (EHC) has been available to private patients over the counter at pharmacies since 2011.
Due to an anomaly in the law, however, medical card holders have still required a prescription from a GP in order to get the pill free of charge.
Legislation signed by Health Minister Simon Harris last week will remove this requirement and make it easier for medical cardholders to access the morning-after pill for free from July 1.
A total of 34,249 women were prescribed the contraceptive drug under the medical card scheme during the three-year period at a cost of €645,443 to the publicly funded HSE.
A regional analysis of the figures shows that the HSE administrative area with the highest number of medical cardholders who got the morning-after pill was Cork North Lee, where 2,004 women were issued with the EHC at a cost of €39,986.
This was followed by Galway, where 1,805 women got the morning-after pill on the medical card between 2014 and 2016 at a cost of €34,035.
Limerick had the third-highest number of medical card holders who were issued with the emergency contraceptive during the same period, with 1,776 women prescribed the pill at a cost of €33,517.
West Cork had the lowest number of women issued with the morning-after pill under the scheme, with just 325 medical cardholders receiving the contraceptive free of charge over three years.
Dublin South-East recorded the second-lowest number, with 329 women covered by the medical-card scheme receiving the pill during the reference period at a cost to the HSE of €6,429.
Dún Laoghaire was the administrative area with the third-lowest number of women who were issued with the morning-after pill under the medical-card scheme.
A total of €6,712 was spent by the HSE providing the EHC to 339 individuals in this area.
A spokesperson for the HSE said legislative changes removing the requirement for medical cardholders to visit a GP would enable women to access the EHC more quickly, thereby increasing its effectiveness and reducing levels of crisis pregnancy.
“Emergency contraception is most effective when it is taken as early as possible after intercourse and is an effective secondary method of contraception, if a couple have not used contraception or if their contraceptive method failed,” they said.
The rules requiring medical-card holders to attend a GP had resulted in access issues for some women who could not get a prescription in time — particularly at weekends — and could not afford to buy the drug themselves.
Announcing the removal of the “unfair anomaly”, Mr Harris said: “This is an important public health measure and will remove any barrier to medical card patients getting timely treatment from their local pharmacy. This is about equity of access for all our citizens.”
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