Pressure grows as Fianna Fáil TD quits over Budget


Wicklow TD Joe Behan has resigned from the Fianna Fáil party this evening in protest at the Government’s decision to abolish the automatic right to a medical card for the over 70s and other Budget measures.

Mr Behan’s resignation comes amid growing disquiet from within Fianna Fáil and from Opposition politicians over the medical card decision.

Fianna Fáil TDs Tom Kitt, Jim McDaid and Mattie McGrath and the Green Party all called for the medical card decision to be reversed.

Mr McDaid said: “We have to accept that we approached this from the wrong direction. The minister was trying to get to the doctors, but unfortunately she went through the old-age pensioners. Mr McGrath said the measure needed to be “parked” as there was “too much anxiety” over it.

Independent TD Michael Lowry said the medical card measure was “social unfair” and “morally wrong”, while Green Party TD Mary White said the party was "unhappy" with the move.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil TDs Michael McGrath and Thomas Byrne called on the Irish Medical Organisation to accept lower payments for medical cards in the case of the over 70s.

“At the moment doctors are paid €161 for patients on an ordinary medical card. However, in the case of the over 70s doctors receive €641 per patient,” the pair said in a statement.

“There is a clear discrepancy between the two figures. The Government believes it would be very helpful, in light of the difficult economic climate, if the IMO were to agree to a lower payment for patients over 70.

“If the doctors and the IMO were willing to reexamine the price situation, medical cards for the over 70s may become more affordable. Under such circumstances I believe the Government would be prepared to look at this decision again.”

Mr Behan, who was elected to the Dáil last year wrote to the Taoiseach to announce that he was resigning not just from the parliamentary party but from the organisation in protest. He pledged to oppose the medical card decision "with every fibre of my being" in the Dail. His bombshell decision now puts huge pressure on the three Independents who have supported the Government as well as on his party colleagues.

A number of Fianna Fail TDs sought a meeting with the Taoiseach Brian Cowen to discuss the issue this afternoon but following Mr Behan's announcement they decided to head to their constituencies.

Sinn Féin Wicklow councillor John Brady said Mr Behan's resignation was “an honourable departure from a dishonourable party” and a a "breath of fresh air".

"His talk of his support for universal access to healthcare and other services and his concern about the many injustices perpetrated by this Government including the gross overcrowding of our schools, the lack of facilities for people with disabilities, especially in Co Wicklow, clearly shows that he was a man wrecked by guilt and shame at the record of this Government,” he said.

More than 30 Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators voiced their criticism at a specially convened parliamentary party meeting yesterday. Earlier today, Cork North Central TD Noel O’Flynn, publicly apologised to pensioners in his constituency about the scheme on Cork 96FM.

Under the terms of the modified plan, which was announced last night, people over 70 whose income corresponds to or is less than the State contributory pension of €240.30 a week for a single person, or €480.60 for a married couple, will be entitled to retain a full medical card.

However, the modification failed to stem opposition. Fine Gael have tabled a private members motion for next week calling for the over 70s medical card decision to be reversed. This motion will be a real test of the Government's resolve on the issue as there is now wholescale disquiet on the Fianna Fáil backbenches at the decision.

"Fine Gael is taking the first available opportunity to force a Dáil vote to maintain the current entitlements of senior citizens. There are thousands of older people whose fears and concerns must be allayed by the restoration of the rights that have been taken away from them," said Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny.

“The Fianna Fáil and independent deputies who have claimed they are concerned about this move will now have the opportunity to vote with their feet.”

Following the announcement in the Budget, the Department of Health and Children has begun informing people that their current medical card will expire on the December 31st and that the HSE will write to them early next month with a means test form, which will need to be completed and returned within two weeks.

The Labour Party today questioned the legal authority of the HSE to force people over 70 to undergo the mean tests to obtain medical cards.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said today he has written to the chief executive of the Health Service Executive, Prof Brendan Drumm, challenging the legal authority of the HSE to require the elderly to return means test forms for medical cards in advance of the enactment of appropriate legislation by the Oireachtas.

In his letter to Prof Drumm, Mr Gilmore says: “I have to say, as a member of Dáil Éireann and a leader of a political party represented in both Houses of the Oireachtas, I find this pre-emptive approach on the part of the Government, supported apparently by an independent State agency, very disturbing.

“You must be aware that the full eligibility, without means test, of all those aged 70 and upwards to HSE services is provided for by Section 1 of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2001. That Act remains in force as the law of the land and binds both the Minister for Health and Children and your Executive. No Bill to amend or repeal that provision has yet been published – let alone passed by both Houses and signed into law by the President.”

Warning that there would be a legal doubt about the expenditure of public money on this plan, in advance of the enactment of the legislation, Mr Gilmore called on Prof Drumm for an assurance that no public monies or resources will be devoted by the HSE to a proposal that has as yet no statutory or other lawful basis.

“The Government has made an announcement of its intention to snatch medical cards away from the elderly, but they have no authority to begin this process until the appropriate legislation has been enacted,” said Mr Gilmore.

“This is not a done deal. Government backbenchers are already in a state of panic as a result of the public fury at the plan. The Government can be forced to reverse its decision, provided that the public put sufficient pressure on Fianna Fáil, Green Party and PD representatives and the so-called ‘Independents,’” he added.

Elsewhere, the National Committee of Siptu's Retired Members Section, which today held a meeting to discuss the implications of the Budget, said it was "outraged at the callous nature of the proposed changes to the medical card."

"The Cabinet has clearly picked on older people as a soft target for their cost cutting measures," it said in a statement.