Cancer patients have criticised the Government’s high-profile medical card system reform plan, warning the changes have failed to change the focus on an applicant’s income, have left people in the dark and effectively allow the Coalition to "put a plaster over a wound that needs urgent surgical attention".
The Irish Cancer Society (ICS) made the claim last night, despite a cautious welcome to the long-awaited plans by a number of other groups.
Under plans announced by Health Minister Leo Varadkar, terminally-ill people will no longer be forced to undergo a review in order to keep their cards.
GPs will also have an increased right to veto the removal of medical cards from their patients by restoring the help for four months, and up to a year in extreme cases, while a clinical advisory group, including patients, will be set up to help the HSE decide on whether people with “significant medical conditions” who do not automatically qualify still receive the help.
The plans, which will continue to allow income to be the main decision maker on whether someone receives a card, are expected to be fully in place by next summer and have been broadly welcomed by patient and medical groups as a first step towards resolving the scandal. However, in a statement last night the ICS warned the changes did not go far enough.
“The opportunity has not been taken to recommend a complete overhaul of the system, and the legislation on which it is based,” said spokesperson Kathleen O’ Meara. “Income will remain the main qualifier... with medical need as secondary consideration. The report only recommends that Government should put a plaster over a [serious] wound.
“The Irish Cancer Society welcomes elements of the new proposals, particularly that wider discretion and greater humanity will be exercised,” she added,
The comments came despite a number of other groups heavily involved in the medical cards debate “cautiously welcoming” the new measures.
They include the Jack and Jill Foundation and the Disability Federation of Ireland, which while raising questions over the lack of an exact timeframe said the move was a first step.
Doctors unions also welcomed the changes, with the IMO’s GP committee chair Dr Ray Walley saying the move to include more local views in any card decision will ensure the system “treats patients as human beings and not just a number”. However, the medical unions also raised eyebrows at claims they would have veto rights on decisions to remove medical cards from their patients — insisting that they had never heard of the powers until now.
Case study: Letter threatened to cancel boy’s restored card
By Mary Regan Political Editor
The mother of a boy with Down syndrome who battled for months to have his medical card restored last week received a letter threatening to take it away again.
Noreen Keane, mother of Ronan Woodhouse, 9, said she was “shocked” to get the letter, but that she has since received an apology from the HSE who said it was an error. “It was similar to the letter we got in September 2013 saying we were no longer entitled to the card,” she said.
“The amount of stress and anxiety that caused was quite alarming. The fear was: Here we go again, do we have to start fighting again for what has been given back?”
Ronan was among 15,000 people who had their cards restored in a U-turn by the Coalition following May’s local elections.
It followed months of “exhausting” campaigning by the single mother from Limerick and her son who had waited outside the Fine Gael national conference in the city last year to ask the Taoiseach to restore his card.
“The difference of having it back is huge,” said Noreen. “Ronan is quite sick so it just means more security and less pressure in going to the doctor and getting his medication. He needs new glasses as well and it means he will have the support for that.”
However, she has lodged a complaint with the Children’s Ombudsman relating to extra childcare costs — which are partly funded by the card — for the duration that Ronan was without the card.
She welcomed measures announced by Health Minister Leo Varadkar yesterday, but said she still lives in fear of losing the benefit. She is calling on him to treat all children with lifelong conditions — such as Down syndrome — in the same way as those with terminal or “serious” illnesses who have been assured they will not be subject to reviews.
“Anyone with a lifelong condition should have a medical card. I appreciate the difficulty in legislating for certain illnesses, but Down syndrome is for life, it is never going away.”
Mr Varadkar said those who had their discretionary cards restored earlier this years will keep them until the new system is up and running.
But Ms Keane wants more certainty that she and other families will not face fresh reviews.
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