Blood scandal bill: €900m

THE Government, facing a final bill of almost €900 million to compensate people infected by contaminated blood, has been urged to take legal action against pharmaceutical companies in the United States who supplied the lethal products.

More than 3,000 people those infected with hepatitis C and HIV, their spouses, carers and dependants have lodged claims in the 10 years since the compensation process was first set up.

Nearly two-thirds have been settled, costing taxpayers well over €600m in awards, legal and other costs. Only a small number of claims are likely to be lodged ahead of a final deadline later this year and the total bill is expected to be close to €900m.

The Government must move to claw back at least some of that money from the companies who supplied the contaminated blood, a lobby group and opposition politicians have urged.

Margaret Dunne, of the Irish Haemophilia Society, said the only way for the companies to be held accountable is if the State takes an action in the US.

"Get the costs back off the pharmaceutical companies. It seems a very simple solution," Ms Dunne said.

Health Minister Mary Harney is waiting to receive legal advice on the issue. A lawyer employed by the department has been trawling through documents here and in the US and is likely to issue advice within weeks.

Labour's Liz McManus said she plans to table a question to ask whether there is any update. "There's very little sign of movement," she said.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "In July 2003 the Government was approached unilaterally by a firm of New York lawyers with the proposal that the Government could sue certain pharmaceutical companies in the United States arising from the manufacture of blood products which caused Hepatitis C and HIV infection to persons with haemophilia.

"Initial advice received from counsel appointed by the Attorney General raised serious concerns in relation to the proposal. Following careful consideration of this advice, the Attorney General recommended that an independent opinion be obtained in the United States in respect of the proposed litigation."

The Hepatitis C and HIV Compensation Tribunal has issued a reminder that the deadline for lodging claims is October 9 this year.

Ms Dunne said she expects most of those affected have already made a claim. The few that have not are likely to be family members of people who contracted hepatitis C or HIV from products in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The tribunal has paid a total of €530m to 2,008 people who made claims. This includes close to €80m in reparations an extra 20% to those who do not sue and an extra €70m to 295 victims who appealed to the High Court. At the end of 2003, the average award was €225,000, ranging from 5,000 to €2m. Legal costs have topped €80m.

Earlier this year, a 24-year-old man infected with hepatitis C at birth after his mother was given Anti-D during an earlier pregnancy was awarded €2m by the High Court.

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