HSE apologises over costs warning to flu vaccine patients

Health service insists medical care will be given despite threat to those taking legal cases against State

Mary Fitzpatrick of Sufferers Of Unique Narcolepsy Disorder (Sound) talks to reporters   after a  High Court hearing. Photograph: Collins

Mary Fitzpatrick of Sufferers Of Unique Narcolepsy Disorder (Sound) talks to reporters after a High Court hearing. Photograph: Collins

Mon, Dec 9, 2013, 15:51

The Health Service Executive has withdrawn and apologised for a letter sent to families warning them it would not reimburse medical expenses where legal action is taken over the use of flu vaccine Pandemrix.

Some 60 children given the drug were diagnosed with the narcolepsy sleeping disorder after a vaccination programme in 2009 and 2010 against the human variant of swine flu.

A letter, dated November 20th and warning of a withdrawal of medical costs in cases where the State was being sued by patients, was sent by Greg Price of the HSE’s advocacy department. It said the decision was based on the advice of the State Claims Agency.

“We are advised by the State Claims Agency that we will not be able to make any payments in respect of any ongoing or future expenses incurred by you associated with [the patient’s] diagnosis of Narcolepsy,” the letter said.

“We will forward receipts submitted by you to the State Claims Agency.”

Dr Philip Crowley, director of quality and patient safety with the HSE, has insisted his organisation is primarily responsible for the medical care of families affected by narcolepsy.

“We will continue to fund all medical care that they need,” he said.

“When somebody takes a case against the State or against the HSE certain costs and expenses get wound up into the damages as I understand,” he told RTÉ.

“I think it was an error to wind any medical costs into that consideration. That’s what happened and that’s what is now clarified.”

However the state Claims Agency last night denied it had advised the HSE to act as it did.

“The State Claims Agency did not advise the HSE of any requirement to alter its approach to the awarding of items like Medical Cards or the provision of other normal health benefits and supports allowed to the relevant individuals in the past,” it said in a statement.

It added: “The State Claims Agency informed the Advocacy Unit of the HSE that it should cease making ongoing out of pocket payments to individuals who were suing the State and that these individuals should, as happens in every comparable litigated case, include these expenses as part of any special damages claim.”

Dr Crowley said the HSE had enjoyed a good relationship with those affected by narcolepsy and referred to the issue of the HSE letter as “a blip” adding that he wanted to “clarify our position that all medical costs will be paid”.

He said he agreed that Tony O’Brien should have been told of the HSE letter earlier and not learned of it on a radio news report.

“There are a lot of staff in the HSE and a lot of communications going out and sometimes the wrong judgment is made… and that’s the case in this case,” said Dr Crowley.

Addressing the families affected by narcolepsy, he added: “I would like to take the opportunity to say sorry … for the anxiety and distress that it must have caused. I’m glad of the opportunity to say to families we will continue to provide a comprehensive range of care that they identify in partnership with us that they need.”

Pandemrix, developed by pharma-company GlaxoSmithKline, was given and indemnity by the State and used to counter the swine flu pandemic four years ago.

However a report has since found that those who were vaccinated with Pandemrix were 13 times more at risk from narcolepsy than those who were not given the drug.

The State had committed to meeting the medical costs of those affected including the costs of visits to private consultants.

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