Medical card decision a breach of public trust


OPINION:Last week's Budget ended the myth of Fianna Fáil as the party that cares, writes Enda Kenny

THIS IS a first. We've had tough budgets before. But this is the first full frontal attack on workers, on education, on healthcare and on older people.

Last week's Budget wrote an end to the myth of Fianna Fáil as the party that cares for the vulnerable and the elderly. It also wrote an end to the myth of Fianna Fáil as being financially competent. Having denied the problem until it became undeniable, they have now turned on the people who have contributed most to the success story that was Ireland in the good years in an indiscriminate brutal and botched Budget that taxes everything and everyone in sight.

No decent government would take away something given to older people as a reward for serving the State in difficult times. The promise that the Government would look after them was taken on trust by older people who are now offended, hurt and, worse - frightened. The fears of the elderly have been heightened by every broadcast by this Government. I know this because I visited a nursing home over the weekend. Every resident there believes they're going to lose their medical card. The loss of faith they're experiencing is devastating.

This Cabinet sat down around the table and collectively approved the medical card decision, knowing, as the Taoiseach acknowledges, that it would "cause a problem."

Every Minister has said that this is a Government decision and not for changing. But now it seems it will be tinkered with, but nobody knows what's going to change, when change will happen or to what extent this blunt instrument is to be refined.

On this Wednesday the Dáil will vote on a Fine Gael motion which demands the Government reverse this decision. Not amend it or water it down or tweak it. Reverse it. That motion will provide a focus for the crisis of conscience being experienced by many Fianna Fáil, Green and Independent TDs in their local constituencies. We'll see on Wednesday whether they have the moral courage to stand up for their older constituents or not.

Aside from the callous crudity of the assault on older people holding medical cards, the days, weeks and months required to administer these complex means tests will be enormously costly. How will the HSE manage this process when it cannot even carry out its current responsibilities? Especially when Minister Harney couldn't begin to explain to Brian Dobson the complicated mathematics now to be applied to people the Government selected to receive a free gift from the State, but have now been found unworthy of the gift.

Her confusion has been made worse by every subsequent intervention from the Taoiseach and his Ministers. One by one they contradicted each other and added to the confusion abut something they know is a serious mistake. Yesterday, and on Friday, the Taoiseach used his prime ministerial prerogative to take to the national airwaves to announce nothing.

Brian Cowen's presence without purpose on the airwaves is a classic Fianna Fáil tactic under pressure: filibustering, saying nothing in particular, but saying it repeatedly, they delay, analyse, deflect. All in the hope that if enough time passes, people will become weary of the fight for what is right. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Regardless of Joe Behan resigning over a botched, brutal and unworkable Budget, despite Independent deputies jumping ship and despite the spineless Greens allowing their backbenchers express concern on Friday after Ministers Gormley and Ryan gave a standing ovation on Tuesday; the problem will not go away and the people will not forgive.

From the moment all Government deputies stood to give this savage Budget a standing ovation, Fine Gael has been doing everything in our power to get this decision reversed. Because it represents an unforgivable breach of the public trust. The trust older people ought to be able to vest in the State in which they live.

And we have shown how it can be done. As I pointed out in the Dáil last week, if the Government allowed doctors to prescribe equally effective generic drugs rather than brand name drugs they could save the State between €100 and €150 million each year, just as many other European countries have done.

Though the decision to take away medical cards is the most obviously offensive element of this Budget, it is not the sole mistake that should be reversed. In fact, there is no plan to get the country out of this recession. No reward for innovation or good management: all suffer alike.

The Budget offered not a jot in relation to Public Service Reform. In fact, it perpetuated the worst of the present system: in education, cutbacks apply indiscriminately to all schools. In this Budget Fianna Fáil intends to increase class sizes. But some people were kept happy. Brian Lenihan found ways to please Tom Parlon and the Construction Industry Federation, thereafter devoting his energies to making war on the middle classes.

They're an easy target, that emerging, rapidly increasing group, who, having paid their bills, have nothing left in the bank at the end of the month, bar their overdraft. The mortgaged poor who work hard, pay their taxes, do their bit for their community.

Theirs was the generational dream: do well in school, get a degree, get a good job, buy a home, do better than their parents. But, now, for the first time in the history of our State, the Government has ensured they will have a lower standard of living than their parents. Not because of lack of brains, or diligence, or initiative. But because of the Government's hand in their back pocket, its larceny disguised, with cringe-making crassness, as "patriotism".

Failure of trust is a stab to the heart of a society. Dr Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Fed, in a recent lecture at Georgetown University, argued that "trust is at the very core of our economy and our democracy". Reversal of this decision is the only move that could return even a tiny element of national trust in this Government.