Niamh Griffin: Health budget focused on shortfalls in care for women

A dedicated health package, coming to some €32.2m, targets many areas of women's healthcare, including screening, contraception, and menstrual products.
Niamh Griffin: Health budget focused on shortfalls in care for women

The budget saw the expansion of free contraception to women aged between 16 and 30, although concerns continue regarding ease of access. File Picture

Funding for menopause treatment, IVF, and contraception was included in the health budget yesterday, which had a significant focus on shortfalls in women’s health. 

There had been speculation the health budget might fall short of what is needed to address problems, particularly the spiralling waiting lists seen in our hospitals, and while concerns are already being raised, the funding goes some way towards addressing issues in women’s health.

The dedicated women’s health package, coming to some €32.2m, seems to be aimed at addressing a number of crisis points which have hit women or been highlighted in recent years.

Among these sensitive areas is screening, with the budget delivering an additional €760,000 in funding for a number of screening services.

This includes implementing recommendations made around the CervicalCheck programme by the expert reference group and Dr Gabriel Scally.

Funding will also benefit women in at-risk populations by targeting low uptake in BowelScreen, and piloting a national screening pathway for women with diabetes who become pregnant.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said innovative technology will be added to the BreastCheck programme.

"However, inequalities to access persist, and what this investment will do is address some of these inequalities, expand the benefit of these programmes to at-risk populations, and listen to the voice of women on how we can improve their experience,” he said.

The fund will also allow for reimbursement of a morning sickness drug called Cariban. It supports the setting up of a Breast Implant Registry, which means patients can be traced if there are product recalls.

Free contraception

Among changes sure to be popular as the cost-of-living crisis continues is the expansion of free contraception to women aged between 16 and 30.

National Women’s Council director Orla O’Connor welcomed this, saying: “It’s important that the positive steps taken this year are continued and extended to all who need contraception over the coming budgets.” 

Irish Pharmacy Union president Dermot Twomey also welcomed the expanded scheme.

"However, cost is not the only barrier to contraception, and there must be an equal focus on enhancing ease of access,” he said.

“Women should have the choice to access oral contraception [the pill] direct from their pharmacy without prescription.” 

The budget provides funding to support access to IVF treatment, this is expected to roll out from September next year.

An unspecified amount of funding is set aside for advanced nurse and midwife practitioner roles. Recruitment sits at the heart of these plans, which a workforce that is plagued by shortages could struggle to deliver.

Vat on menstrual products

Another money-saving measure saw VAT removed from the remaining menstrual products which were still taxed, including period pants.

Mary Cosgrove, a lecturer in tax and accounting in the JE Cairnes School of Business & Economics at University of Galway, said these new products did not fall under previous EU rules which saw tampons and pads exempted.

"The zero-rating of the hormone and nicotine replacement patches is another example of the VAT code playing catch-up with technologies,” she said.

Plans to move the National Maternity Hospital to a new site in Dublin are mentioned without detail.

There does not appear to be funding set aside for a proposed inquiry into the impacts of an epilepsy drug containing sodium valproate given to pregnant women.

However, there is €12.3m for a ‘catch-up programme’ with the HPV vaccine in schools and for women up to 25 years of age.

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