Public patients hammered

OPPOSITION parties and patients’ groups have accused the Government of hammering public patients through a series of stealth taxes outlined yesterday in the Book of Estimates.

An 8 increase in the Drug Payment Scheme (DPS) means those who rely on a monthly drug supply will now have to spend 78 rather than 70 per month to qualify for Government assistance. A spokesperson for the Irish Senior Citizen’s Parliament said the increase could mean a lot of elderly people were unable to take medication on a regular basis.

A&E charges are to go up by 5, bringing the cost to 45. Private patients have also been hit. The cost of a private bed in a public hospital will rise by 15%.

Voluntary health insurers BUPA last night said they would not immediately pass on the price rise to the consumer. Marketing manager Seán Murray ruled out any increase before next year.

A 5 increase in the fee public patients pay for overnight use of a public bed will bring the overall cost to 45.

On the capital investment side, funding for the hospitals building programme has been cut by 8%, while staff at the Department of Health will enjoy a corresponding rise in salary payments.

Opposition parties last night criticised the Estimates, warning that the 891 million increase would not allow hospitals to maintain service levels.

The Department of Health has already said that 900 million was needed to preserve the status quo.

Labour health spokesperson Liz

McManus said people would be charged even more to lie on trolleys in chaotic A&E units.

She also criticised Health Minister Micheál Martin for failing, for the second year running, to extend the medical card scheme to an additional 200,000 medical cards.

Fine Gael’s spokesperson on health, Olivia Mitchell, said despite all the hype of a bumper 10bn health budget next year, the reality was a pathetic additional 38 million to pay for improvements in hospital services, community support services, home help, disability programmes, orthodontics, nursing home subventions, services for the elderly and mental health, when the pay bill was deducted”.

A department spokesman said last night that approximately 7 billion would go towards the pay bill. This includes 200 million under benchmarking and 240 million under Sustaining Progress.

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) said it was dismayed with the health estimates.

Assistant general secretary Dónal Duffy said an 8% increase in non-pay expenditure next year meant no extra patients would be treated, when medical inflation was taken into account.

He said the 2001 Health Strategy “has clearly been abandoned in terms of development of our acute hospital system” and the hospital restructuring programme, recommended in the Hanly Report, was at an end.

Irish Patients Association spokesman Stephen McMahon said the amount of investment in health meant the system would grind to a standstill. He said the stealth taxes would also affect those who could least afford them, those on an income which placed them just beyond qualification for a medical card.

The Irish Nurses Association said existing service levels could not

be maintained and general secretary Liam Doran predicted further overcrowding and unacceptable demands on staff. Mr Martin defended the stealth taxes, saying the additional 20 million raised through increasing the cost of private beds would go towards improving services in public hospitals and that A&E increases would go towards bettering A&E units.

A further funding of 187 million will be made available to meet the increased cost of the GMS. Additional funding of 50 million will go towards the increased costs of the DPS and monies raised through raising the DPS threshold will yield savings of approximately 8 million, which will further fund the service.

Forty-three million euro has been allocated to tackle waiting lists. The minister also said that funding required to support the health reform programme, including Hanly, would be given priority in 2004.

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