Medical card U-turn ‘not a stunt’

Forget being wary of Greeks bearing gifts. They’re amateurs when compared to politicians bearing medical cards on the eve of an election, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Medical card U-turn ‘not a stunt’

AS THE author Emma Bull once said, “coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys”.

On Tuesday — three days before the local, European, and by-elections that could prove key to Coalition support — the Government finally took decisive, commendable action on the ongoing discretionary medical cards scandal.

Sort of.

Speaking in separate parts of Dublin, but clearly from the same hymn sheet, Health Minister James Reilly and Finance Minister Michael Noonan said a year into the crisis, it is suddenly no longer acceptable for “some of the most vulnerable people in our society” to be stripped of the State help.

Action, they insisted, would be taken. Words, they said, were not enough. Details on exactly what would happen, however, were non-existent.

While Mr Noonan on Tuesday and Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday bizarrely attempted to explain the lack of information on the plan as necessary to ensure any policy change is not seen as “some kind of [pre-election] stunt”, it is difficult to see the move as anything else.

Three days before a series of key elections, the Government has tried to kill-off one of its biggest problems on voter doorsteps by providing little except a change in tone and a promise the issue will be addressed, in some as yet unknown way in “the coming months”.

It’s not an election stunt, they insist, but the timing of the U-turn looks far from a coincidence either.

The main issue with the shift in the Government’s view of the medical card crisis is it contradicts what the Coalition had said up until this month.

When the scandal emerged during an Oireachtas health committee meeting last July, Mr Reilly said no condition gives anyone the right to a discretionary medical card.

He repeated the stance on October 17, saying the situation is long-held policy, and “rejected out of hand” that any change occurred.

Mr Reilly has subsequently accepted that some people are being accidently caught up in attempts to remove cards from people who do not need them, and fought to reduce medical card cuts from a planned €113m this year to €23m due to the concerns. However, he has still defended the “probity” policy.

Mr Kenny has also made his long-held position clear.

On October 22, the Taoiseach said concerns over the cuts were “scare-mongering” and insisted “every person who deserves a card” was getting one. That same month, he blanked a family protesting outside the Fine Gael ard fheis after their child — who has Down syndrome — lost that help.

During a Dáil debate on December 18, he said “there are more medical cards issued now than ever before”, a statement he has since repeated while defending the policy.

However, on May 5 — after a Fine Gael meeting heard the medical cards issue is the key concern for voters — he admitted the scandal is “an issue”.

Meanwhile, Alex White, the primary care minister, has on numerous occasions insisted there is “no such entity” as a discretionary medical card as it is simply another way to access the general medical card system.

Despite 1,000 people losing the card every month last year and a discretionary medical card estimate not being stated this year for the first time in the HSE’s existence, the barrister has simply told interviewers this legal argument means no cull exists.

On Tuesday evening, Kevin Shortall, whose 9-year-old daughter Louise has spent the past two years fighting a dual battle with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and HSE discretionary medical card red-tape, spoke for thousands of other families by telling the Irish Examiner he still has concerns.

“I’m glad to see he’s [Mr Reilly’s] acknowledging the law is the problem, and I don’t want to go on the personal attack, but they haven’t made a statement on what they will do,” said Mr Shortall, who is behind a campaign called Our Children’s Health to ensure a child with a serious or congenital condition is automatically legally entitled to a medical card.

“I’d have thought if they had a rabbit to pull out of the hat on this, that’s exactly what they’d do. There’s a change in tone but nothing yet in action.”

Pre-election promises to soften the cough of the electorate just as they go to the polls are nothing new. All parties do it.

In 2007, the ‘it’s not a kite’ being flown was stamp duty changes for first-time house buyers and the now-galling “soft landing”.

In 2011, it was a cast-iron guarantee that services would not be cut at Roscommon General Hospital, before they were cut after the vote.

And let’s not forget one of the most infamous cases, from the 1988 US presidential election, when George Bush said: “Read my lips: No new taxes,” before ultimately raising and introducing... new taxes. He was voted out after one term.

Pre-election promises are often just another part of the political scenery. But a potentially empty pre-election promise can easily blow up in a government’s face.

Whether it likes it or not, until the Coalition explains exactly how officials will finally address the discretionary medical card scandal, this week’s comments will be seen as just one more example to add to the list.

Like Greeks bearing gifts, just because those at your door say everything is fine and past problems are being resolved, doesn’t make it true.

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