Statements on the White Paper on Universal Health Insurance

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Healthcare and systems of healthcare all across the world are changing rapidly, reflecting changes in medicine, diagnostic procedures and a greater emphasis on preventative medicine and it is only right that the way in which the Irish healthcare system is provided is kept under regular review.

The notion of universal health insurance has been around for many years and has been taken up in many European countries, with varying degrees of success.  As with any new system, problems with the system were highlighted in the initial stages and some of these have been addressed to date. However, the central element that underpins the notion of universal health insurance is that often private healthcare providers can provide treatments at costs lower than those available in the public healthcare sector.

Scans, diagnostic tests, minor surgical procedures, many of these can be carried out in a private healthcare setting for a fraction of the cost of the public system, yet there are many instances of medical and surgical procedures which private healthcare providers are reluctant to provide, instances where the volume levels are very low and the patient requires specialised and individualised care.

A key objective of the Universal Health Insurance proposal is to put an end to a two-tier health system, where those who can afford private health insurance are seen to quickly, whereas people who rely on the public system have to wait for appointments and procedures. We must ensure that what is a laudable objective does not result in a service which has profit and not health at its core.

I note that in introducing the White Paper on Universal Health Insurance Minister Reilly said that over the next year the Department of Health will examine the cost of the proposed new system and I very much welcome that fact because many people in East Galway have expressed fears to me that universal health insurance will place increased costs on householders at a time when householders are struggling to meet week-to-week costs.

I recently met with a number of Active Retirement groups in county Galway and a constant theme running through the discussions was the fear that both people currently without private health insurance and the diminishing number of people with private health insurance would be negatively affected by the introduction of universal health insurance.

Much greater clarity on the issues surrounding universal health insurance is needed before members of the public will be convinced that such a sea change in the provision of Irish health care is a proper way forward and that’s why I greatly welcome confirmation that significant time is going to be spent costing this.

Many other crucial questions also remain to be answered, such as whether or not drugs would be included in the scheme and tax relief on health insurance. These are crucial questions and people will be awaiting the outcome of these discussions before making up their minds on this issue.

Mistakes have been made in other countries in terms of the introduction of universal health insurance and we must see what steps the Department of Health intend to put in place to ensure that these mistakes are not replicated in Ireland.

The Minister has highlighted the issue of cost containment and we really have to get to the bottom of why hip replacement or stroke care costs twice as much in Ireland as it does elsewhere. Given the state of the country’s finances, value for money must be sought at every opportunity and the Minister has rightly pointed out aspects of our health service where savings can still be made.

I would urge people all across the country to have their say on this White Paper and to fully engage with the public consultation process which will take eight weeks, ending on May 28th.  I know that the implementation date for the plan is five years from now, but people recognise the importance of this decision and it is crucial that as many people as possible have their say before this plan is progressed to the next stage.

In particular, I would urge parents of young children and active retirement groups all across the country to study this document and to get involved in the consultation process, to make their views known and to highlight their concerns.

This represents a sea change in the provision of health care in Ireland and I look forward to an extensive consultation process which will involve all stakeholders.  It is a crucial transformation and one which must be fully considered and carefully progressed.