Elderly Irishwoman with medical card ‘under pressure’ to repay €4,000 debt

Elderly Irishwoman with medical card 'under pressure' to repay €4,000 debt

An elderly woman with a medical card is under pressure from a debt collection agency to repay €4,000 after she received treatment for septicaemia in the private wing of a hospital, a health committee has heard.

Sinn Fein TD Louise O’Reilly called on the Health Service Executive to immediately stop referring patients’ debt to collection agencies.

Hospitals across the Republic of Ireland pay debt collection agencies to pursue patients for statutory charges such as the €100 emergency department fee and €80 per night inpatient bill.

She told the Oireachtas Health Committee the case of an elderly woman with a medical card who is being pursued for a €4,000 debt after she was treated for septicaemia in the private wing of a hospital.

“I want to bring to your attention one example, of an elderly lady who has a medical card, who needed a hip operation. She could not wait so her family clubbed together money. They clubbed together so that their mother could get an operation privately.

Sinn Fein spokesperson for Health Louise O’Reilly TD speaking to media on the Cervical Cancer scandal on the plinth at Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
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“Following on from that, she developed septicaemia. She was admitted to hospital and because she had previously been a private patient, she was brought into the private wing they had so she would be treated for septicaemia.

“She’s an elderly lady, she did not know where she was being brought, she was brought to the private wing of the hospital.

“She now has a bill for €4,000 and she’s been chased by a debt collection agency. This is one example. I don’t want to give the name of the hospital as she is terrified about being identified,” she said.

Ms O’Reilly said the woman is now being pursued by a debt collection agency and is very stressed as a result.

“What this does highlight is the fact that a debt collection agency does not care about whether or not the woman had a medical card; they won’t care about her means or capacity to pay. What they will care about is recovering that debt.

“I think you should cease to use the debt collection agencies altogether because I don’t think it has any place in the Public Health Service.

‘She’s an elderly lady, she did not know where she was being brought, she was brought to the private wing of the hospital’

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“There is no compassion being shown to this woman, because when it goes to debt collection agency it’s taken out of the public system, and they’re just a company who are interested in recovering the debts,” she said.

In response, Health Minister Simon Harris said patients have to opt in to private treatment if they have a medical card and he awaits further detail of the woman’s case.

“I know you’re making a broader point, but just on that specific case, it sounds very traumatic. Let’s see if we can get some clarity for you from the HSE (Health Service Executive),” he said.

Director general of the Health Service Executive Paul Reid defended the use of debt collection agencies and said there is “significant pressure” on the Government to recoup debts.

Minister for Health Simon Harris TD

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Mr Reid said the HSE has a statutory obligation to charge and collect these charges and hospitals have the discretion to operate payment plans where appropriate.

He said: “There is very significant pressure across the whole of government, in terms of debts outstanding to the taxpayer. Obviously the HSE features vary significantly in terms of our debt that is outstanding so there has been an ongoing process, led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) across all departments to improve our collection of debt and I think it’s only right that we should.

“The agencies that we have to collect debt are quite professional agencies, and well respected agencies and that’s the way it should be.

“I’m very happy to investigate anything that is inappropriate, but we have highly respected agencies who work with us.”

Mr Reid said at the end of September, the HSE budget overrun amounted to €319 million.

He said that the comparable figure for the same period last year was almost 100% higher, at €636 million.

He said the current overspend was mainly due to pension and demand-led areas and the HSE Service Plan 2020 will be submitted to the Health Minister for consideration and is expected to be published within the next week.

Separately, Mr Harris said up to 190 beds will be opened over the coming weeks to help alleviate pressures on emergency departments.

As of today, 83 beds will open at Letterkenny University Hospital, the Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore, Waterford University Hospital, Cork University Hospital, University Hospital Limerick and the Children’s Hospitals in Dublin.

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