The climbdown comes a year after concerns were first highlighted with Enda Kenny in the Dáil about vulnerable patients, including sick children, having their cards cancelled. At one stage, up to 1,000 cards were being cancelled a month.
Health support groups last night welcomed the suspension of reviews of discretionary medical cards. However, questions remain on whether people who had such cards cancelled before can now get them back.
Some TDs also said the changes would not give any relief to the majority of people with discretionary cards as they would still have to run the gauntlet of trying to have their card renewed.
The process would be changed to take account of medical conditions, junior health minister Alex White told the Dáil yesterday.
Reviews of cards where discretion is applied will cease immediately, the HSE said. Such cards are granted where an individual is over the income threshold but discretion is applied due to medical circumstances.
The Department of Health will now also develop a policy so eligibility for all cards take account of medical conditions. The HSE will establish an expert panel to examine the range of conditions for the policy.
The decision was taken following a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on health yesterday, involving ministers and the Taoiseach.
The review of medical cards was heavily criticised, with children with long-term medical conditions losing their entitlements.
Politicians from all parties have admitted it was also a major issue on the doorsteps with voters in recent weeks.
Mr Kenny earlier this week said he would “fix” the problem.
The changes may require legislation and Government sources also say, despite eligibility now being linked to a condition, that income may still play a factor.
Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe said people needed to see the detail and it remained unknown if people who lost cards in reviews could get them back.
Independent TD Finian McGrath said sick children should never have been targetted in the first place.
Independent TD Denis Naughton said the changes would only help 4% with discretionary cards. The majority would still have to run the gauntlet of trying to have their card renewed.
The Irish Cancer Society welcomed the news. Kathleen O’Meara, head of advocacy, said: “It seems from this announcement that for the first time, people will be assessed on their medical need rather than their financial circumstances.”
The society said it would be seeking the inclusion of cancer as a medical condition that entitles applicants to a discretionary card.
As of March, there were 50,000 discretionary cards.
A HSE spokeswoman said the costs for the changes and the timeframe for the new policy remained unknown.
She said the policy review would try to identify a “legal basis” so people who lost cards can be made eligible for a medical card. It was correct to say changes initially would only affect a small number of card holders, she added.