Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended the use of a legal strategy aimed at containing the State’s potential liability on private nursing home charges.
Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar described the legal plan as a “legitimate legal strategy by the Government”.
But he said that he does not recall being briefed or authorising the strategy, which has been strongly criticised by the Opposition in recent days.
[ Q&A: Controversy around State’s legal strategy ]
The Government is coming under pressure to explain why it adopted such a strategy and to clarify which Ministers were privy to the plans, with Opposition TDs demanding to know which ministers sanctioned the approach. But no former or current ministers were willing to say they knew of or authorised the strategy.
Tánaiste Micheál Martin said through a spokesman that he was not aware of a number of memos from 2011 onwards which reaffirmed the strategy, while former minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin, who was reportedly copied on an early memo, also said he could not recall ever being briefed.
Attorney General Rossa Fanning is now preparing a report on the matter for Cabinet next Tuesday and the Government has committed to publishing this report. There will also be Dáil statements on the controversy after the report is published.
The strategy was devised before 2011 following a series of meetings between officials and former ministers. It concerned claims from medical card holders who believed they were due a refund of private nursing home charges because there was no space for them in a public nursing home.
The plan was created as the State was concerned about potentially significant legal exposure and huge costs if a case on the matter was lost, which could create a precedent.
[ Pat Leahy: Long list of people who didn’t know what was going on over nursing home charges ]
The Government is continuing to argue that it was never the plan to give medical card holders the entitlement to free private nursing home care.
On Monday, Mr Varadkar told Newstalk radio that he was never party to the legal strategy.
In the Dáil on Tuesday, he said: “I must have been briefed on it.”
He said he could not say when or by whom, whether it was written or verbal, or whether it was a detailed briefing. “I do not know if I was specifically asked to sign off on it being continued but if I had been asked I would have agreed to do so,” he said.
The Irish Mail on Sunday reported that in May 2016, as Mr Varadkar was succeeded by Simon Harris as health minister, a brief was prepared within the Department of Health which again confirmed that the Government’s policy remained one of settling cases at the point of discovery.
A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said on Tuesday night that he was not party to this memo and that it referred to a previous minister for health before him.
The spokesman said the Department of Health did not name which previous minister this was. In 2014, Mr Varadkar took over as minister for health from former Fine Gael TD James Reilly.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Tánaiste Micheál Martin has said he was not aware of a number of successive government memos detailing the strategy. However, he added that the State’s position going back over decades, and after the Supreme Court decision of 2005, has always been clear.
“The policy of a number of governments over many years has been consistent, that private care should not be entirely covered by the State.”
He said the Health Repayment Scheme was set up in 2006 to repay eligible long-stay residents, paying out more than €485 million to more than 20,000 patients.
“The Fair Deal Scheme was then established in 2009 to provide a statutory basis for contributions towards public or private nursing home costs,” the spokesman said.