Hayes seeks automatic medical cards for cancer sufferers

Tim Ryan, Oireachtas Correspondent

Tim Ryan, Oireachtas Correspondent

The issue of medical cards for persons with cancer was raised in the Dáil by Fine Gael Deputy Tom Hayes.

He told the House he finds it one of the hardest things in public life to get an answer stating a person suffering from cancer cannot be given a medical card.

“I raised this issue in the House only a number of months ago with the former Minister of State, Deputy Róisín Shortall,” he said. “At the time she was in the middle of making a change, which I understood and accepted. However, I raise the issue again because I remain concerned that we have not arrived at a situation where people diagnosed with cancer, in particular the self-employed, can qualify for a medical card. Financial information is looked for, but the matter is very simple.”

When the oncologist sends a letter notifying that a person has cancer, he or she should be entitled to a medical card, at least for a short period until the financial and other issues have been cleared, he said.

“I implore the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, to act. Other countries also have dire financial problems and other issues that must be dealt with, but the reality is that we must look after sick and vulnerable people with cancer who are going through a very stressful period.”

In reply Minister of state Alex White said on the fast-tracking of medical card applications for certain categories, it is important to point out that the HSE already has an effective system in place for the provision of emergency medical cards for patients who are terminally ill, or who are seriously ill and in urgent need of medical care that they cannot afford.

“Emergency medical cards are issued within 24 hours of receipt of the required patient details and letter of confirmation of the condition from a doctor or medical consultant,” he said. “This can be initiated through the local health office by the office manager who has access to a dedicated fax and e-mail contact within the PCRS. As a result, there are no plans to establish a new unit given that this regime is in place.”

With the exception of terminally ill patients, the HSE issues all emergency medical cards on the basis that the patient is eligible for a medical card on the basis of means or undue hardship and that the applicant will follow up with a full application within a number of weeks of receiving the emergency medical card, he said. As a result, emergency medical cards are issued to a named individual, with a limited eligibility period of six months. “The arrangement is slightly different for persons with a terminal illness. No means test applies to an application by a terminally ill patient. Once the terminal illness is verified, patients are given an emergency medical card for six months.”

McGrath urges for a balance in price of medicines

South Tipperary is almost the home of the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland, Independent Deputy Mattie McGrath told the Dáil.

Speaking on a new Health (Pricing and supply of Medical Goods) Bill he said there is a huge pharmaceutical presence there, with companies like Merck Sharp and Dohme, Clonmel Healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline in Dungarvan over the border, Boston Scientific, Abbott Vascular and many more.

“They play a huge role in the community in South Tipperary, providing well paid employment and investment in the community,” he said. “All these companies run various schemes to support community initiatives in Cashel and Clonmel and that is appreciated and recognised. I have been through these plants and the technology in them is fascinating. The investment that has been put into these workplaces is amazing and the process, from the raw materials right through to the production of the capsule we take, is amazing. We welcome these companies and want them to stay.”

However, he said we must also respond to pricing for customers.

“We cannot have a knee-jerk reaction but we must rein in costs and spending at this point. We must strike the balance in every Bill. To quote some of the figures, in 2011, the HSE spent €1.9 billion on medicines and non-drug items for patients in the community. This includes mark-ups and dispensing fees paid to farmers and wholesalers. In addition, hospital expenditure was approximately €300 million. That is staggering by any measure. HSE expenditure on medicine and non-drug items is huge. We must recognise that and we all came under huge pressure when the former Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney, was trying to rein in these costs. “

There were powerful lobby groups in the pharmaceutical sector, he said. Anyone with that level of investment and employment can call the shots because they are needed in the country.

“It is a gateway to Europe but nevertheless they have massive investments and they must be balanced against our approach to driving down pricing,” he added.

Deputy McGrath said almost €2 billion was spent in 2010 on the GMS for drugs, a huge amount. It increased by 140% in the decade from 2000 to 2010, when everything went crazy in this country.

“We never thought we would see a poor day again during the boom but everything slid past and prices escalated. Now we are left to try to deal with these legacy issues. We cannot afford to continue paying that sort of money. We must also ensure continuity of supply and it is vital we have the latest medicines that have been tested and approved and that will improve people’s health and well-being. That can never be forgotten.”