The decision to end the automatic right to a medical card for the over-70s was taken for purely financial reasons. This decision was wrong – BREEN

December 17th, 2008 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: Thank you, Ceann Comhairle.  I will finish my contribution tonight.

I can see that the spirit of Scrooge is alive and well and like Scrooge, the ghost of Christmas past is coming back to haunt this Government.

  I remind the Minister of State of the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis in April 2007, just prior to general election, and of what the then Taoiseach Deputy Bertie Ahern said during his live television address.  He claimed that Fianna Fáil is the party to take care of pensioners.  He said, “They talk; we deliver.  Just ask pensioners all across Ireland.”  It seems that today the ghost of Christmas past sits on the back benches.  The Minister of State should ask any pensioners now what they think of this Government and the promises it made.  The Government has abandoned and betrayed the pensioners.  They have very little to cheer about this Christmas.  It is not a season to be jolly for many of our older people because they still remain worried and confused about the medical card situation. 

  The decision to end the automatic right to a medical card for the over-70s was taken for purely financial reasons.  This decision was wrong and it should not have happened.  Our older people built this country; they have made their contribution.  In the twilight of their years they should not have to worry about how they will be cared for in their old age.  During the height of this debate they were assured by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, that this decision would mostly impact on retired public servants and High Court judges but this is not the case.  Deputy Neville spoke about retired teachers.  A deputation of retired teachers met me to express grave concern about their future considering the contribution they had made to society.  They believe many of them will lose their medical cards.  Other groups of people affected will include retired nurses, gardaí, former Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta workers in my own constituency and local authority workers will now be excluded.

  Statistics show that approximately 215,000 out of the current 350,000 people over the age of 70 have a medical card based on an assessment of means.  The Government is telling us that only 20,000 of the remaining 140,000 people will now be affected under the revised scheme but I am not convinced by that argument.  In my own constituency of Clare there are more than 9, 046 pensioners over the age of 70 who were issued with a medical card as at 31 October 2008.  These pensioners and their families in County Clare were put through unnecessary distress by this ill-thought out proposal.  I have met many of them and listened to their concerns.

  In the case of a medical card expiring in 2012, what is the situation if the person believes he or she is over the income limit and still continues the use the card?  Many people are confused.  How many of these pensioners will fall into the “Excluded category”?  Under pressure from the grey revolution the Minister has agreed to alter the income limits for the fifth time.  However, confusion still reigns.  There is very little information available as to how the entire scheme will operate.

   Another one of the promises of the ghost of Christmas past was to index link all medical cards to increases in the average industrial wage.  This commitment should be written into this legislation instead of leaving it to the discretion of the Minister for Health and Children to seek consent from the Minister for Finance to adjust these income limits in future years.  Under this legislation the responsibility now falls on the old age pensioner to declare his or her income by 2 March 2009.  Many older people still have a fear of filling out forms.  What about those older people who have long term debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s?  What provision is being made for these people and who will bear the burden of responsibility?

  The proposed means test will be a fiasco.  It is just another botched attempt to try and pull the wool over our eyes.  If the Government is now putting the onus on the pensioner to comply with the regulations, how in the name of God can it do so without first clearly outlining how income and savings will be calculated?  The issues surrounding the qualifying criteria and how a person’s property is to be assessed should be clear and transparent.  It should not be an official State secret.

  In order to squeeze every last penny out of every hard-pressed pensioner, this Bill also proposes that the health expenses relief will now only be granted at the standard rate of 20% as opposed to the marginal rate of 41%.  While the Minister claims that those unfortunate to have a terminal illness for example can apply for a discretionary medical card on the basis of their health situation, there is no guarantee that they will receive it.  When the older people who will now be branded in the “Excluded category” go to visit their accident and emergency department, need to stay in hospital or have to pay for their medicine they will face additional costs.

  It is not too late to change this legislation and leave a legacy for our older people of which we can be proud.  It is not too late either for the Fianna Fáil backbenchers who claim that they are sorry for the anxiety caused to our old people.  We have listened to many Fianna Fáil backbenchers saying how sorry they were.  I urge them to stand up and be counted when a vote is called tomorrow evening.  I ask them to join the ghost of Christmas yet to come and to show compassion for our old people.  I ask them to join with us and help restore some festive cheer for the old people at Christmas. The former US President, John F. Kennedy, once said:

Today in there are those who would shut the door of hope on our older citizens – who would deny them benefits adequate to eliminate poverty and despair. But there are others who will not let that door be closed – who intend to fight for the right of all men to live out their lives in dignity and in health. That rescue party is on the way – and there are more of us – and we are stronger – and we will prevail.

We can prevail and we have the courage.  I ask Government Deputies to join us tomorrow evening in reversing this decision to end the automatic right to a medical card for the over 70s.