Ireland Changes Plan To Cut Seniors' Health Care

Ireland is having tough budget times. But austerity measures put forth by the ruling party Fianna Fail went too far for some citizens. The government was forced to reverse its proposal that called for cutting health care benefits for seniors.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's go next to Ireland. That country's economy had been booming in recent years. Times are tougher now, so tough that the people have been calling the government's new austere budget, the hairshirt budget. The austerity measures went too far for some Irish, especially senior citizens who are angry about a proposal to cut health care benefits. Yesterday the government was forced into an embarrassing reversal, as NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Dublin.

ROB GIFFORD: Perhaps it was just the hangover from the boom years that clouded their thinking, but no one here can quite understand what government ministers were thinking when they made the budget announcement last week. In order to balance the books, they said they were going to scrap the entitlement for seniors to so-called medical cards giving them free health care. Immediately there was uproar culminating in a meeting of angry pensioners in a church in central Dublin yesterday.

(Soundbite of pensioners meeting, Dublin)

Unidentified Woman #1: I have only one word to this taking away our cards and that is euthanasia. I am so mad.

Unidentified Woman #2: We are not asking them. We are not demanding, we're telling the government that this is not coming in.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "We Shall Overcome")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.

GIFFORD: Addressing 2,000 angry pensioners singing "We Shall Overcome" is a difficult task for any politician. The unfortunate man with that job yesterday was Junior Health Minister John Moloney.

Mr. JOHN MOLONEY (Irish Junior Health Minister): Good morning, may I try to speak, please, for maybe just one minute?

Unidentified Woman #3: You should be ashamed of yourself. There is no place to politicians here.

GIFFORD: Several pensioners stormed the stage, grabbed the microphone from him, and in the end Moloney was forced to retreat without speaking. Just as pensioners were gathering for this meeting, however, Prime Minister Brian Cowen was giving a news conference across town to express his regrets at the anxiety caused by the budget cuts and to announce a huge climb down.

Prime Minister BRIAN COWEN (Ireland): The government has decided to set a new income threshold for medical cards in respect of persons aged 70 and over. It will mean that those whose gross weekly income is 700 euro per week will receive a full medical card.

GIFFORD: Seven hundred euros, about $900 a week, is more than three times the level the government initially set, leaving just the wealthiest five percent of pensioners losing their right to free health care. Some analysts suggest yesterday's move will stop the very public revolt. Richard Delevan(ph), a columnist with Business and Finance magazine doesn't think so.

Mr. RICHARD DELEVAN (Columnist, Business and Finance Magazine): You're going to see other interest groups who've looked at what's been done now with the medical cards look at the other cuts that they're being asked to endure and say, well, why not me? Why can't I be the person who also gets a break?

GIFFORD: Focus now shifts especially to the teachers. The austerity budget slashes elementary and pre-school funding, and increases the size of classes. General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers Association John Carr says the government's proposals show a bigger problem in the way the Irish economy has developed.

Mr. JOHN CARR (General Secretary, Irish National Teachers Association): With the economic boom, we've adopted an American model rather than the European model. The emphasis is on profit, on profiteering, on big business, and we've neglected the social aspect of our economy.

GIFFORD: The Irish government may have bought itself some time with its amendments, but the general slowdown in the economy here means there are likely to be problems and confrontations for some time to come. Rob Gifford, NPR News, Dublin.

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