Patricia Feehily: Forget Halloween: The Budget has me spooked

Minister Michael Noonan who announced a pretty scary Budget last week
MORE discon-certing news for the economy this week! It seems that we’re going to spend slightly less on Halloween costumes and seasonal high jinks than we did last year, when we squandered half the bail-out trying to frighten the wits out of ourselves. But who needs Halloween anyway, when most of us are all spooked out after the Budget? The hair is still standing on the back of our necks, and I know people who went grey overnight when they realised that their medical cards were at risk. You’d think that they’d heard the wail of the banshee, the way they reacted.

MORE discon-certing news for the economy this week! It seems that we’re going to spend slightly less on Halloween costumes and seasonal high jinks than we did last year, when we squandered half the bail-out trying to frighten the wits out of ourselves. But who needs Halloween anyway, when most of us are all spooked out after the Budget? The hair is still standing on the back of our necks, and I know people who went grey overnight when they realised that their medical cards were at risk. You’d think that they’d heard the wail of the banshee, the way they reacted.

And maybe they did, because some of them are already preparing to spend their last years without their blood pressure tablets, heart regulators and cholesterol blockers. It’s spine-tingling stuff, without exaggeration.

Now, I do know that lots of people were delighted with Michael Noonan’s Budget and the way he has managed to control our profligacy and take us out of the bail-out with a spring in our steps. Although the Minister will also have to accept that, without the medical card, some of us won’t be quite so sprightly when we’re exiting.

Frankly, I’m on the side of the disgruntled this week. It’s not the economy, stupid; it’s the medical card that bothers me and particularly medical card eligibility. Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I do not possess a medical card, and never did. But then I’m one of the lucky ones. The only ailment that afflicts me is acute hypochondria. Every time I get a pain, I can hear the four horsemen galloping past. If I had a medical card, I’d probably be at the doctor’s every second day, indulging my irrational fears and sending the country back into a bail-out. Now I’m afraid that by the time I reach the age of 70 my past will have caught up with me, and I won’t be able to keep the hypochondria at bay. I’ll be lost without a medical card.

It’s no laughing matter, however, for the thousands of over 70’s who are now clutching their medical cards to their chests in desperate fear - or for the thousands of others with long term illnesses whose eligibility is either under review or already dismissed.

But it didn’t start on Budget day. For months now, medical card holders have been subjected to eligibility reviews and the withdrawal of their cards. Worse still, many of them were told over the summer that their new application forms, complete with private income details and other requested documentation had never been received at the HSE’s new centralised medical card office in Finglas. For most of them that was a bad omen.

Now, centralisation of the medical card system was certainly long overdue. Some counties seem to have had a disproportionate number of cards per head of population. Donegal beat the band, apparently, and why that should be is anyone’s guess, because they’re neither poorer nor sicker than the rest of us. But wouldn’t you think that when the HSE was centralising the service at all, it would have based it in a place more accessible to those of us who live in the sticks. They might as well have put it on the top of the Magillicuddy Reeks as far as some of us are concerned. Even if we found our way to Finglas, we don’t have an address for the office where they do the processing. All the HSE gives us is Box number 11574.

This, of course, means that we cannot gather an army and lay siege to the place. It also means that we do not get a chance to meet the medical card assessors, face to face, to explain our particular circumstances or even to show them that we’re on our last legs, if that’s the case. It’s all very removed from the clientele it serves. But then, isn’t that how the HSE usually operates – behind closed doors?

Already there are signs of great hardship and fear being experienced in the widespread withdrawal of medical cards by HSE staff ticking boxes behind closed doors in the office in Finglas, isolated completely from the sufferings of the people they’re supposed to serve. Michael Noonan introduced new income levels for eligibility, but it’s not all about income. It’s about need, and surely any realistic assessment of need requires a professional medical dimension, as well as a human and local dimension.

But, at the end of the day, taking medical cards from the sick and the elderly is about making savings in an organisation that has obviously lost the run of itself.

At the same time, giving universal free GP care to children under five, regardless of their parents’ income, is simply mind boggling. From my own experience of taking small children to the doctor 25 years ago, most of them, I believe, will come away with nothing most costly than a prescription for a bottle of Calpol.