THIS WEEK THE government announced that the review of discretionary medical card is to be suspended with an immediate effect.
This is an issue that has been discussed for years but it is only this week that the government have committed to a fundamental policy shift that will impact on many families.
Discretionary medical cards feature in the Health Act 1970, a dated piece of legislation that organisations like Arthitis Ireland says needs an overhaul.
Under the legislation the HSE can give a discretionary medical cards, which is not means tested, like the usual medical card, but that is given to a family who have “undue financial hardship”.
However, up until Thursday these cards were up for review, typically every three years according to the HSE.
What does the Junior Minister Alex White’s statement mean for families of ill children who rely on the medical card?
A great deal to many, but not a whole lot to the parents who have already been through the review process and have had their discretionary card taken away.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Jackie Connolly from Cork is the mother of six-year-old Katie. Katie has Down Syndrome, juvenile arthritis, chronic asthma and a heart condition.
Katie’s medical card has been taken away despite her conditions having got a lot worse over the last year.
“When I heard Minster White was making an announcement I was very excited. I thought, finally, something is going to be done about this – but effectively, nothing has changed for us,” said Jackie.
“It is great news for the people who have a discretionary card at the moment and for those that are under review. It is a great relief to them I am sure, but there are 40,000 people who have lost the discretionary card – under this reform, there is no change for them,” she said.
Katie’s medication can cost upward of €400 per month not to mention the costs of physiotherapists and consultants she sees. Katie’s mother explains that often times she has to travel to Dublin for treatment, pushing the costs upwards with petrol and possibly an overnight stay.
“It all adds up,” she said, “but that isn’t taken into consideration as far as I can see”.
“The change is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. This is not a resolution to a lot of people.”
Jackie says upon hearing the news she has decided to reapply for a discretionary card for Katie.
“There is still no guarantee that she will get one. It is so frustrating that we went through a review, we appealed and we had our card taken away and now we have to fill out the long form, gather all the information again, visit Katie’s doctors and get all the relevant documents – it’s just mind-boggling that we have to go through this again, with no promise that anything will come of it,” said Jackie.
Ignored at their peril
“I think the Government are sorry they didn’t think of doing this prior to the election, because it was a big issue for many people. But they ignored it at their own peril. The back benchers were telling them they were getting it in the neck on the door steps and they were naive to ignore the warnings. It’s no coincidence the announcement came this week,” she said.
“The bottom line is this needs to be sorted, now. They are just trying to fob us off with this non-announcement. But we won’t be fobbed off,” she concluded.
Meanwhile, Gavin Tracy received this letter from the HSE two weeks ago stating that his five-year-old daughter who is in a wheel-chair and has Cerebal Palsy was unsuccessful in their appeal.
He told TheJournal.ie that he wasn’t sure where they stood now. “We haven’t heard anything as of yet, but we hope this means that we will be getting Lauryn’s discretionary card back”.
“It should never have come to this. It’s a shame you have to scream and shout just to get something done in this country,” he said.
He added that he thinks the government were “caught on the hop” when it came to this issue, stating “whoever is making these decisions is not thinking about the individual, but thinking of the group as a collective, but each person has their own set of difficulties,” said Tracy.
Arthritis Ireland has been campaigning for a long time for discretionary medical cards to be given on the basis of needs.
Communications Manager Stephen O’Farrell said that they are giving this announcement a “cautious welcome” saying that while it was a good thing and welcome for a lot of families, there were still a lot of people that do not fall under the remit of this policy change.
One of their main concerns is the expert panel. “We got in touch with the HSE yesterday about it. It is absolutely necessary that patients organisations are represented on the panel and if not, then each group should get a chance to sit down with the panel to make their case,” he said.
“We need to see more detail on this. The fact that no timeline is concerning,” he concluded.
Minister’s commitments to parents
The Our Children’s Health campaign group, who are calling on the Government to amend the Health Act of 1970, so that any child diagnosed with a serious illness or congenital condition is automatically entitled to a full medical card, met with Junior Health Minister Alex White late yesterday afternoon.
They described the meeting as “broadly positive”.
“The minister said that it is his intention to expidite the process of establishing an expert group and ultimately bring a new legal frame work of awarding medical cards on the basis of medical need to fruition and we accept his bona fides on that,” they said.
However, when pressed on the issue of re-instating medical cards, the minister said that while it was “not possible legally” to reinstate the full medical card, he would be directing the HSE to urgently establish a protocol that would provide such cases with the full range of support, care and services that they would require.
Ultimately, the minister said that for those people who have had their discretionary card withdrawn, these cases would have a “go to” person – a specific section within the HSE – to contact and deal with their situation as quickly as possible.
Detail to be provided next week
The Our Children’s Health group said they asked for further detail and the minister said that they would provide it early next week.
“If it transpires that the range of support, care and services that the Department is proposing to provide as an interim measure does not amount to the equivalent range currently available under the full medical card, then that situation would not be acceptable to us or the parents we have come to represent,” said Peter Fitzpatrick, co-founder of the group.
However, he said they are willing to wait for additional detail on this next week and will make a further statement once they have it.
The group said that during the meeting the minister was non-committal to a timescale and when it was suggested policy change would happen within this calendar year, the minister would not promise that.
Due to “complexities involved” he was not committed to an end of year resolution, but he did reiterate his intention to expedite the whole process.