Medical cards are to be made available to all people who are terminally ill and have a prognosis of up to 24 months, the Minister for Health has announced.
Until now, the HSE has had the option of providing a terminal illness medical card for people with a prognosis of less than 12 months to live.
This was widely viewed as unacceptable, as even with a terminal prognosis, some people will live beyond one year.
"A terminal diagnosis is undoubtedly devastating. The provision of a medical card can provide much needed certainty and reassurance for individuals and their families during such a difficult time. Up to now, all those who have a prognosis of up to 12 months meet the 'end of life' criteria for eligibility for a medical card," Minister Stephen Donnelly explained.
He said that with Government approval already secured, he intends to "direct the HSE to put in place arrangements to enable all those with a prognosis of up to 24 months to be eligible for a medical card".
Last November, the Clinical Advisory Group established by the HSE to examine this issue recommended legislative change to extend medical card eligibility in cases of terminal illness. The administrative scheme announced will be in place for 12 months, pending the development of legislative options, which is currently being examined by the Department of Health.
This arrangement will apply to a range of specialties, including oncology, cardiology and neurology.
Minister Donnelly said the Department of Health will now work closely with the HSE "with the aim of ensuring necessary processes and communications to operationalise the scheme are in place within weeks".
John Wall, an air traffic controller living with stage four prostate cancer, had been campaigning for a change to these rules for some time. Responding to the news in a tweet, he said he was "very emotional and proud right now".
The news was also welcomed by patient organisations, such as the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), which said that it will come "as a relief and comfort to many people".
"It is very welcome news that people who are terminal and have two years or less to live will not have to worry about being able to afford vital medicines and care, on top of the burden of living with a terminal condition," commented consultant cardiologist and IHF medical director, Dr Angie Brown.
Meanwhile, the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) described it as a "welcome step in the right direction".
"A diagnosis of terminal cancer is a devastating one for anybody to hear and for those patients the absolute last thing on their mind should be worries about medication costs, GP fees and inpatient charges at hospitals.
"Extending medical card access to these patients will mean that now they won't have to worry about these things on top of everything else such a diagnosis brings for patients and their loves ones," commented ICS director of advocacy, Rachel Morrogh.
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