Health Minister James Reilly has admitted the Coalition is inflicting "tremendous distress" on people through widespread medical card reviews, as the issue threatens to damage government party support in Friday’s elections.
Dr Reilly said the controversy over children with Down syndrome and adults with motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis losing their cards “is not a place I want to be as a doctor or as a minister for health”.
Speaking at a launch of new services at the Mater Hospital, he said the Government is examining ways to change the system, and told vulnerable people the issue will be addressed in the coming months.
However, he failed to explain what changes are on the table out of “deference” to Cabinet colleagues helping with the decision.
“It is not our intention to allow a situation continue where those who are clearly vulnerable and in need whilst maybe having means of €400 and €500 a week are left without the supports that they need for themselves and for their children.
“This Government wants to restore the economy, but it wants to restore the economy to serve our society. And part of that has to be making sure the most vulnerable and most in need are looked after.”
The issue has been to the fore of voter anger during the local and European election campaigns.
More than 20,000 people have signed a petition calling for seriously ill children to be automatically given medical cards — just one day after the campaign began. The family behind the campaign said actions speak louder than pre-election words.
“I’m glad to see he’s [Dr Reilly’s] acknowledging the law is the problem, and I don’t want to go on the personal attack, but they haven’t made a statement on what they will do,” said Kevin Shortall, whose daughter Louise, 9, has leukaemia.
“I’d have thought if they had a rabbit to pull out of the hat on this, that’s exactly what they’d do. There’s a change in tone but nothing yet in action.”
In recent days, Dr Reilly has met a number of families affected by the issue, which saw 1,000 people per month lose discretionary help last year, and will see €23m in cuts this year. Those who met with the minister included Ronan Woodhouse, 8, who has Down syndrome, and asked Dr Reilly on Monday to give him back his card.
“I understand the pain and distress this is causing,” the minister said. “Obviously not in the immediate week or two, but in a number of months this issue will be and has to be addressed.”
Finance Minister Michael Noonan also said changes to the system will be announced “shortly”.
“Obviously the approach to the review of medical cards will have to be changed. We are not going to do it before the election because we’d be accused probably of some kind of stunt. But shortly after the election, that issue will be addressed.”
However, Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher said people did not need “pre-election gimmicks” but a reversal of the Government’s policy.
“They denied for a long time any change of policy in the awarding of discretionary medical cards. Now they’re admitting it’s a major problem. they should clarify what they intend to do because people are already suffering and cannot afford to wait.”
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