KAREN FUNNELL: Cancer is not a ‘free’ disease, Mr Reilly

For a health minister, James Reilly shows a huge ignorance of cancer. By deeming non-terminal cases to be not “serious enough” to warrant a medical card he proves how little he knows — or cares — about the financial implications of the disease.

Receiving the news that you have cancer is frightening, bewildering, and overwhelming — the last thing you need to worry about is how you’re going to pay for it. But it is a factor.

Cancer is not a “free” disease. Medication costs money, travelling to chemotherapy or radiotherapy sessions eats into your petrol and for chemo patients, a decent wig will set you back around €500 (which medical card holders can claim back).

GP visits at €50 a throw are part of a diagnosis, as well as hospital stays if and when surgeries are required. With no private health insurance, it costs €75 a night to stay in hospital (capped at €750 a year). Medical card holders are exempt from this hospital charge.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in Jan 2011 and following six months of chemo, several surgeries, a few blasts of radiation therapy and hormone treatment, the latter of which is ongoing, I am now in remission.

I received a medical card weeks after my diagnosis, in spite of our family income exceeding the threshold. There was a sizeable amount of paperwork but the process was relatively straightforward.

It was a relief. My head was all over the place and it was one less thing to worry about.

Up until then, my visits to the GP rarely exceeded one or two a year. Now I had prescriptions to pick up, and advice to seek on side-effects. There was a nasty vomiting bug in between chemotherapy treatments and other infections that occur when your immune system is being attacked.

I once joked with the doctor that I was due a loyalty card. She was hugely supportive (being round the corner when the hospital was an hour away) but if I’d had to pay €50 every time I sought her advice, I’m not sure how we would have managed. I certainly would have struggled on at home on at least a couple of occasions.

Then there’s the medication, which most breast cancer sufferers are required to take for at least five years.

It’s about €20 a month, wouldn’t break the bank but still enough to dent a tight budget. When I was first diagnosed — prior to getting the medical card — the oncologist prescribed a hormone injection.

I handed over €120 (the drug payment scheme limit at the time) to the chemist for the pleasure. In some patients these injections need to be done every three months.

Cancer is not something we do for kicks. The diagnosis typically comes out of the blue, it hits all ages, all cultures. And it changes your life. Every ache and pain is questioned, what if it’s back, what if it’s spread?

Awarding a medical card should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a patient’s other outgoings and financial pressures.

Understandably, the Government needs to cut its health bill and the issue of who is entitled to a medical card has to be looked at — maybe up until now in some instances it’s been too easy to get one.

But hitting the working poor, who often earn just over the ever-tightening thresholds, is not the answer.

Cancer, on its own, is enough to be dealing with Dr Reilly. Don’t add to it.

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