Health boards did not charge pensioners who complained


Several health boards last year stopped levying illegal charges on patients who complained about deductions from their pensions to pay for care in long-stay public nursing homes, but continued with the practice for thousands of others.

Officials in the Ombudsman's office have confirmed to The Irish Times that two health boards ceased charging some older people who complained.

But up to 20,000 other elderly medical card patients continued to have deductions made from their pensions as contributions for staying in long-term public nursing homes or in beds contracted by health authorities in private facilities. The charges were dropped last week following an order from the Tánaiste and Minister for Health, Ms Harney, who had received advice from the Attorney General that they were unlawful.

The charges, which generate about €8 million a month, will be reintroduced following legislation being rushed through the Oireachtas this week to put them on a statutory footing.

The Department of Health confirmed last night that it had received legal opinion from a health board casting doubt on the legality of the charges in May 2003 but that it was more than 1½ years before the matter was referred to the Attorney General.

The former minister for health, Mr Martin, said he was unaware of the opinion obtained by the South Eastern Health Board which suggested the deductions were unlawful. The Department of Health said last night it had consulted the South Eastern Health Board on the legal opinion and considered the issue over several months as part of a general review of eligibility.

Last December the Department raised the charges matter with health board chief executives.

It said a small group was convened within the Department "to prepare a position paper on the legal issues as a prelude to submitting a request for legal advice to the office of the Attorney General".

But the Department said that due to other pressures caused by the overall healthcare reforms, the EU presidency and other service and financial issues, it was not referred to the Attorney General until October 27th this year.

It has also emerged that the Department was made aware that charging older people with medical cards for public nursing home care was legally unsafe as early as the 1980s. Officials in the Ombudsman's office say the issue was raised on numerous occasions and, in some cases, resulted in older people being refunded. The Department argued at the time that the entitlement of this group of people to nursing home care was unclear.