Allegations that the State deliberately denied refunds to patients illegally charged nursing home fees are “grossly misrepresented”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
He said the central allegation that successive ministers and attorneys general, along with officials, conspired to deny people refunds they were entitled to “is as far-fetched as it sounds”.
Mr Varadkar, under persistent questioning from Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and Social Democrats leader Róisín Shortall, admitted the legitimate legal strategy about this issue was agreed before he was appointed health minister in 2016.
“It has been confirmed that the policy and legal approach predated July 2011 and has been followed since then. Successive attorney generals, ministers in multiple governments and senior officials in the Department of Health would have considered the matter and would appear advised in a consistent manner on the issue,” Mr Varadkar said.
On the reports in the media, Mr Varadkar said: “Deputy, I believe this matter has been grossly misrepresented, including by you just now in a very irresponsible way.
“Your claim that people in private nursing homes were illegally charged is not correct. And your claim that that was confirmed by a Government spokesperson last night was just made up,” he told Ms McDonald.
Mr Varadkar said the strategy was to defend the cases relating to private nursing homes on several grounds, in particular that medical card holders did not have an entitlement to free private nursing home care.
“It was never the policy of the government, nor the intention of the Oireachtas to create such an entitlement. Even today deputy, people with medical cards who, for one reason or another, either choose or are forced to avail of private healthcare and social care, they don't get a refund, not even now,” he said.
He said a limited number of individual cases were sampled over the course of 10 years where there were complicating factors.
“No case ever proceeded to a hearing. And if it had, the State would have defended its position and had justifiable defence prepared in the case of public nursing home charges,” he said.
A scheme was put in place which was widely publicised, and €485m was paid to former residents and their families.
“This was considerably less than the estimate of €5bn put on the potential to liability in 2011 by the Department of Health. It was made very clear at the time that this would not extend to people who are in private nursing homes,” he said.
Ms McDonald said for more than 30 years, the State and successive governments have ripped off hundreds and thousands of elderly citizens and their families by unlawfully charging them for nursing home care.
Despite consistent, repeated legal advice, that these two charges were illegal, government continued to force vulnerable people to pay up and this created real financial hardship, pushed many into poverty as they struggled to afford the charges, she said.
“So instead of the State and government owning up to this horrendous treatment of elderly citizens, successive governments have pursued a heartless, legal and political strategy. A strategy designed by governments to draw out cases that they knew they could not win to exhaust the ability of people to fund their legal challenges, and then to settle for significantly reduced awards,” she said.
She said a memorandum from May 2016 said this strategy was approved by the then health minister, which was Mr Varadkar.
She also asked what knowledge other ministers — including Tánaiste Micheál Martin, Simon Harris and Helen McEntee — had when they were in the Department of Health.
In response, Mr Varadkar said: “I must have been briefed on it, the ministers that went before me and after, we were briefed on it. So I must have been as well. But I can't tell you when I can tell you by whom, I can't tell you in what depth in what detail or whether it was written or verbal.
"And until they have access to documents from that period. I can't answer that question definitively. And I don't have any access to documents from the period, but I have sought them,” he said.
Mr Varadkar told the Dáil the Minister for Health has sought advice from the Attorney General and a detailed written briefing from his officials.
The Attorney General is also preparing a report for cabinet for next Tuesday, which will be published thereafter.