I welcome the Private Members’ motion and the debate on the issue of overcharging of pharmacy fees by a large pharmacy chain. It is a very disturbing development and it would appear very senior people in this large pharmacy chain set out to overcharge the taxpayer.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions.
First, has this matter been referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation? If not, why is that the case and will it be referred? This is a very disturbing development. Individuals regularly come to my office who have bills from the Department of Social Protection for small amounts of money as a result of overpayments that were made to them as far back as ten or 20 years ago. If this matter has not been referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation, it certainly should be, and as a matter of urgency.
I welcome the Minister’s indication that this is not a settlement or compromise figure of any kind, but a definitive figure established following detailed investigation of the claims that were made. It is important to thank “RTE Investigates” and the whistleblowers who came forward and ensured that this development became public. How many other lies are there? Are there further ongoing investigations by the HSE relating to other pharmacy chains? If so, when did those investigations start? Are they proceeding or have they concluded? How many other pharmacy chains are involved, if there is such involvement? Obviously, the Minister and the Members wish to be assured that the HSE has staff and procedures in place to police this issue properly and, indeed, the general issue of pharmacy fees. Is the Minister satisfied that the HSE has proper accounting and audit functions in place as a result of this? Is he satisfied that this could not happen again?
This is a very disturbing development, particularly when one considers the situation with the health budget over the last number of years and the devastation the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government and the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government brought to the health service over the past ten years or so. These moneys could have gone towards dealing with many serious and urgent issues in the health sector to which I intend to refer. I make no apology for mentioning South Tipperary General Hospital in my constituency. That hospital had its budget cut by 25% over those years. It lost €13 million and endured staff cuts of over 100. Despite all of that, it is a progressive hospital. The staff make huge efforts by working above and beyond the call of duty but they are struggling to provide a safe service in a underfunded and under-resourced hospital. The activity levels have gone through the roof and the hospital is bursting at its seams, working at a 120% capacity rate every hour of every day. Indeed, in the medical department the rate is even higher at 150% capacity. That is with average length of stays that are comparable to the lowest national levels.
All of this means that the emergency department – as the accident and emergency department is now known – of the hospital is flooded with people each day. There are 23 patients on trolleys in the corridors of the hospital today. On many occasions during the summer months, the hospital had 30 or 35 patients on trolleys. There were 47 patients on trolleys at one stage. The €12 million relating to the matter under discussion could have gone towards supporting the hospital. Indeed, some of it should go towards that. The hospital is absolutely underfunded. The patients on trolleys each day are located in corridors and in public areas of the hospital near the lifts, vending machines and restaurants. It is absolutely unacceptable. The hospital has a shortage of beds. Its difficulties with under-capacity are accepted by everybody. There is a proposal with the Minister for the approval of a 40-bed modular unit as an interim solution to the problem. I call on him to approve that proposal and provide funding for it immediately. He is due to visit the hospital, at my invitation, on 24 October. I appeal to him to ensure that he makes the money for that unit available. The amount is €2.4 million, a fifth of what we are discussing here in these fees. When the Minister visits the hospital, I ask him to announce the funding for that development and, indeed, capital funding for other upgrading and developments at the hospital.
Obviously, there are other areas to which the moneys we are discussing could have been directed. One area is prescription charges. In the general election campaign of 2011, the Fine Gael Party promised that it would abolish prescription charges, which were 50 cent at the time. By the time it left office, the charges were €2.50 or €25 per month. They are payable by people who have medical cards. They have very low incomes and are unable to pay them. The moneys overcharged on these fees could certainly alleviate that problem. We are all aware of the situation with home helps, who are hugely under-funded and whose hours are cut, the lack of home care packages and the withdrawal of medical cards. These are areas that could and should have received funding and certainly could have been supported by this €12 million.
Finally, I support the proposal in one of the amendments for a national State pharmacy to provide medicines and drugs at cost levels similar to those of our European partners.