Many pensioners are vulnerable, but certainly not all


OPINION:There's no grammatical mandate that the term 'pensioner' be preceded by the emotive 'vulnerable', writes Sarah Carey 

JOE BEHAN'S resignation was a shock all right. A Fianna Fáil deputy resigning on a point of principle rather than a corruption charge should be a welcome development. What a pity Behan picked such a bad principle.

If only he'd resigned because the Budget was conceived on the back of an envelope by a trio of politicians who clearly can't add. Instead, he and his rebellious colleagues have stirred themselves into political outrage so that millionaire pensioners can remain automatically entitled to medical cards. Some principle.

Despite the wailing in the past week, there is no grammatical mandate that the term "pensioner" be preceded by the emotive "vulnerable". Many pensioners are vulnerable, but a significant minority are not. Does Mary O'Rourke, for instance, look vulnerable to you? About as vulnerable as my mother-in-law, a woman with high heels and a spine of steel who co-ordinates her accessories before I set her upon customer service agents who've wronged me.

Or my mother, setting off on a casual 20-mile cycle on a Sunday afternoon clutching a stick to fend off terriers. Try calling these women vulnerable, but only with the car window down while you accelerate past at high speed.

The banking bailout has the potential to bankrupt the entire State, and yet it went through with barely a whimper. Pulling the right to free doctor's visits from the privately pensioned resulted in the angry hordes descending upon Leinster House. There's a lesson for the Government - put Ireland Inc into hock if you want, but don't mess with the individual.

Could we cast our minds back to the budget of 2000 when Charlie McCreevy pulled the automatic medical card for over-70s from his bag of pre-election tricks? Remember the loud cheers from the Fianna Fáil back benches and howls of outrage from every other quarter? The opposition was furious, and not just because McCreevy had secured the next election.

Medical cards are given to those on very low incomes; so low that politicians and doctors constantly plead with the Government to raise the threshold. It's bad enough that those on low incomes worry about doctors' fees, but chronic poverty means they are likely to suffer poor health. Their happily retired counterparts in the upper middle classes can afford to see a doctor, and thanks to a lifetime of good nutrition will need to see him less often. McCreevy's stunt meant a poor but not poor enough 69-year-old couldn't get the card while a wealthy 70-year-old could.

It was wrong then and it's wrong today.

To make matters worse, the Government negotiated the "deal" with the Irish Medical Organisation in which doctors won a payment of €640 per non-means-tested over-70 patient, while they only got €160 for a means-tested pensioner. They got more money for the patient statistically likely to be healthy. What a pity no one saw fit to resign over that rape of the public finances.

Back in 2001, James Reilly, then head of the IMO and now Fine Gael's health spokesman, criticised the move as "handing out free medical cards to people who can afford golf club fees". As late as 2005, the Labour Party said that "the Government's electoral ploy in extending medical cards to over-70s regardless of the consequences has been disastrous in cost and equality terms".

I know oppositions are supposed to oppose, but a little consistency wouldn't go astray.

The Government should be criticised for putting as little thought into removing the cards as they did into awarding them. In 2000 McCreevy failed to anticipate the full cost of the scheme and this time Harney initially set income levels so low that anyone on a State pension would fail the means-test.

If Fianna Fáil were half as cute as they'd like us to think they are, they should have announced a very high income limit in the Budget. That would have made the scheme simple to understand, impossible to oppose and yet set out exactly the principle at stake: that those who can afford it should pay for themselves. Their mistake was that this year's Budget has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with panic.

The Opposition tried to argue that well-off pensioners had abandoned their Voluntary Health Insurance membership once they became entitled to the new card. Unfortunately the facts got in the way of this claim. The VHI confirmed that the numbers of over-70s with private insurance had actually increased since the cards were introduced. In 2001, the VHI had 88,989 customers over the age of 70, while today it has 121,776 customers. Considering the past 10 years have seen a massive transfer of wealth from younger to older generations through the property market, it's hardly surprising they're queuing up for private insurance.

Meanwhile, angry callers to radio shows argue that those people who saved for a private pension are now being "penalised" for their efforts. That's not penalising anyone. That's the welfare state working exactly as it should.

If you're in the VHI, you aren't being penalised: you're reaping the rewards of your hard work and careful planning.

The only people being penalised are the ones who, through bad luck or poor management, are dependent on a public system of waiting lists and crowded out-patients departments. Does anyone resign when a patient dies on a waiting list? Of course not.

Dead men don't vote.