RYLE DWYER: We should crunch the system that provides a spare set of false teeth

DURING the week Bertie Ahern fell down a stairs and broke his leg. But the media was so preoccupied it hardly warranted a mention. The country has been reeling since the budget. Is that what happened to Bertie?

At other times the media would have been consumed with speculation about such an event. There would have been rumours about whether he fell or was pushed. Remember all the speculation after Charlie Haughey fell off a horse. If Bertie were still Taoiseach this week, they would inevitably have been rumours he was mugged by a pensioner or shoved by some senile delinquent.

Fianna Fáil has been in full retreat, apologising for its mistakes since the budget. Enda Kenny could not hide his amusement at the plight of the FFers.

Of course, Enda was in the Dáil in January 1982 when John Bruton’s budget collapsed over the imposition of VAT on children’s shoes, but the reaction then was mild in comparison with the outrage at the attempt to take away the medical cards from the over-70s. All that was missing was TV footage of some old lady flaking a minister with her walking cane. Probably the only reason it didn’t happen was that the ministers were running so fast.

Garret FitzGerald tried to defend the 1982 budget by reportedly getting down as one knee, pleading with the late Jim Kemmy for his support. But Fianna Fáil, the Greens and the PDs abandoned their budget.

Probably none of them thought they were going to save money by scaring so many of those over-70s into an early grave by taking away their medical cards, but the truth is they did not seem to give a damn if that was the likely consequence.

The contemptible way in which the whole thing was handled roused the grey brigade like nobody has done since Ernest Blythe took a shilling off the old age pension in the budget of 1924. Arguably, Cumann na nGaedheal never overcame that faux pas because Fianna Fáil never allowed anyone to forget it.

The budget plan envisaged a threshold for the free medical cards that was absurdly low. Somebody who was over the limit by €1 a week could have ended up having to pay €100 a month for medication because of that single euro. This would have been grossly unfair. Nobody should really have been surprised that this Government is out of touch with the people.

They showed that last year by the way in which they tried to defend the exorbitant pay increases they were according to themselves. Of course, they had to back off, but they clearly learned nothing from the experience. The budget showed they were even more out of touch, but that was nothing compared to their amazement at what subsequently happened. Their surprise is the real measure of their disconnection with reality.

The older generation grew up when people were expected to keep their word. Fianna Fáil essentially engaged in electoral bribery back in 2001 by introducing the universal medical card for those over 70.

I denounced that as crazy at the time by citing the case of a man who, on getting the medical card, went and got an extra set of false teeth not because he needed them, but because they were free. He wasn’t planning on wearing them, but had them ready just in case.

After all, in these dangerous days somebody might have stolen his dentures! So he had a second set ready at home just in case. Is that somebody’s idea of social security?

This is not just an Irish trait. People can be found anywhere in world who will adopt the attitude: “If somebody else is paying, I’ll take two.” The system must try to prevent such abuses.

The problem is not just greedy and indifferent patients; there are also greedy doctors who have milked the system, along with lazy and inefficient administrators. The grey brigade has won the first round, but ultimately everybody will lose if the abuses are not rectified.

Serious problems are already evident with the free medical card scheme. Elderly people on medical cards have to wait months for medical procedures, or even to see a consultant. Time is precious at their stage of life.

If they have retained their medical insurance, or if they are willing to pay, they can jump the queue. This two-tier medical system is a recipe for disaster. For too many people already it’s all promise with little performance.

Once the universal medical cards were introduced for the over-70s, the price of medication went up. It was a licence to print money for the pharmaceutical industry. The threat of taking away people’s right to free medication probably provoked the greatest outrage. Many could not see how they could afford it, and this took on the aspects of impending destitution, or even a likely death sentence.

It explains the anger of the Grey Brigade in St Andrew’s Church in Dublin this week when they refused to allow Minister of State John Moloney or PD Senator Fiona O’Malley to speak. In a sense it seemed like politics had come the full circle.

Fianna Fáil got away with a number of electoral stunts since September 1966 when Fiona’s granduncle, Donogh O’Malley, made his surprise announcement about free secondary education. That proposal had not even been discussed in cabinet. Taoiseach Seán Lemass wrote to O’Malley next day warning that normal procedure would have to be followed and full government approval secured. O’Malley had discussed the idea privately with Lemass in advance.

“It was my understanding that I had your agreement to my outlining these lines of action, particularly in view of the fact that Fine Gael were planning to announce a comprehensive educational policy this week,” O’Malley wrote to Lemass. “If I was under a misapprehension in believing that I had your support for my announcement, I must apologise.”

THE proposal by O’Malley captured the public imagination. It also set the foundation for the Celtic Tiger economy. The only queston then was why it had not been done years earlier.

O’Malley started the ball rolling and Charlie Haughey then ran with it. In his first budget as finance minister in April 1967, he announced free rail and bus travel for the elderly during off-peak hours. In following budgets he announced an allotment of free electricity and free telephone rental for the elderly and duty-free petrol for disabled drivers of all ages.

Fine Gael got into the act in 1973 by promising to remove VAT from food, but if the Blueshirts thought they could steal Fianna Fáil’s clothes they were in for a sore surprise. Fianna Fáil came up with the greatest giveaways of all in the 1977 manifesto, promising to abolish rates on houses and car tax.

The whole giveaway mentality nearly bankrupted the country. The Government has brought back car tax and rates with stealth taxes like VRT and charges for water and rubbish, and it is now introducing education cuts.

This will ultimately lead to two-tier schooling in which handsomely subsided fee-paying schools will charge the elite the extra needed to provide a proper education for their children.

We need to tackle the greed and bureaucratic indifference, not just tinker with the symptoms.


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