Defence force members fear for future of cross-border medical scheme

The scheme has helped 230 defence forces personnel access medical treatment in the last two years but access is under threat due to Brexit and Covid travel restrictions.
Defence force members fear for future of cross-border medical scheme

Members of the naval service are among the defence force personnel who fear losing access to cross-border medical care. The LÉ Roisín off Cobh, Co Cork. File Picture: Denis Minihane.

Injured or sick members of the Defence Forces are stuck in limbo because they're unable to avail of out-of-State medical treatment due to Brexit uncertainties and Covid-19 travel restrictions within the EU.

Two years ago, delays in getting treatment though the Irish public health service prompted PDForra, the association which represents enlisted personnel, to create a medical assistance scheme (PMAS).

This was seen as an essential move in order to assist as many injured personnel as possible access medical treatment under the terms of the EU Cross-Border Healthcare Directive.

Generally, these services were provided in the North and it was expected they would continue regardless of Brexit, as the Irish Government had included cross-border healthcare in its Omnibus Bill.

The successful operation of PMAS – which has the support of both the Department of Defence and senior military management – has seen over 230 Defence Forces personnel from right across all sections of the Army, Navy and Air Corps avail of medical treatment at Knightsbridge Hospital in Belfast.

However, with a further 100 currently waiting because of restrictions in place due to Covid-19, doubt has now been cast over the scheme’s ability to operate in the future in Northern Ireland because nothing has been put in place to ensure it can continue post-Brexit.

“This is a deeply worrying development for PMAS and its members,” PMAS director Martin Bright said.

He said that while the terms of the EU Cross-Border Healthcare Directive allows for citizens to travel to mainland Europe, the loss of the services in Belfast “would be extremely worrying” for their members.

“Currently, the Irish Government is recommending us not to travel and also there are other obstacles such as language barriers and patients flying post-surgery in EU countries,” Mr Bright said.

He said it was understood that discussions were taking place at the highest ministerial levels to establish a bilateral agreement to allow medical treatment to continue in Northern Ireland under the terms of the directive, but as yet, no clear decision is forthcoming.

“PMAS is calling on the Ministers for Health and Defence to engage on the matter immediately to ensure the provision of healthcare under the directive in Northern Ireland is retained in order to protect the health of our members,” Mr Bright said.

“At a time when it is widely accepted there is a retention crisis in the Defence Forces, this scheme has allowed those who have received treatment to be retained in service, returned to their active duty roles in providing security to the State, successfully take up promotion and serve overseas."

He pointed out that the organisers of PMAS scheme have a long-term vision to extend the scheme out to members’ families and at a later stage to all Defence Forces veterans.

Many members of the Defence Forces have been injured, through no fault of their own, while working or on training exercises.

In several cases soldiers, sailors and air crews paid for costly private medical treatment out of their own pockets, often having to resort to borrowing to cover costs. This was another reason PDForra set up the scheme. It charges personnel just €1 a week to join PMAS.

The scheme has proved so popular it nearly has 3,000 members signed up to date, which is almost half of the total membership of PDForra.

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