The Irish Cancer Society said senior management need to “reconsider” plans to stop automatically handing out the special support to people who do not have a life-limiting form of the condition.
Speaking during Wednesday’s Oireachtas health committee meeting, HSE director of integrated services Laverne McGuinness said discretionary medical cards can no longer be automatically guaranteed to cancer patients unless they have a terminal diagnosis.
Health Minister James Reilly, who is discussing the matter with the HSE, said this is because treatment improvements in recent decades mean a cancer diagnosis is no longer always as serious an issue as it has been in the past.
Under the health service plans, any cancer patient seeking the discretionary cards — which can be provided to people who do not meet the medical card support criteria — needs to receive the support of their GP or consultant.
The application is then assessed by a panel of doctors, with cards only automatically given out when the person’s diagnosis is terminal.
The ICS said the matter needs to be immediately reconsidered, adding that some families will not be able to cope with the added financial burden — regardless of whether the diagnosis is terminal or not.
“Our information shows a cancer diagnosis can have a significant adverse financial impact on patients and their families in Ireland,” said ICS head of advocacy and communications, Kathleen O’Meara.
“If someone is self-employed, young, without health insurance, not eligible for a medical card, or doesn’t have savings, they are left in a very vulnerable position of being unable to manage basic expenses such as heating and travel to hospital for treatment.
“We are hearing from an increasing number of these people.”
A spokesperson for the group added that the “new, challenging criteria” may lead to “additional distress for cancer patients and their families”.
She said this was because “cancer patients are already facing increasingly difficult circumstances because of the impact of the recession”, added the “latest reduction in support may be the tipping point for some families”.
According to the ICS, the number of people battling a cancer diagnosis who have applied for financial support from the charity has risen by 36% since 2009.
Last year the ICS provided over €1m to cancer patients struggling with financial issues, with the figure expecting to grow further this year.
“We are hearing an increased anxiety from our enquirers about the cost to them of having cancer.”
A total of 59,000 hold a discretionary medical card for a range of health-related reasons.
The figure is down by more than 30% since 2010 when 80,709 discretionary medical cards were supplied.
* The Irish Cancer Society can be contacted on its national help line, 1800 200700, or via the website www.cancer.ie.