Hospitals told to show 'compassion and common sense' to patients with debt

Hospitals should exercise “compassion and common sense” in how patients who are under financial pressure are pursued for the payment of fees and charges, Health Minister Simon Harris has insisted.

He was responding to revelations by the Irish Cancer Society that seriously ill patients are being hounded by debt collectors for outstanding in-patient charges of up to €800.

He said: “I know we have a caring and compassionate health service.

“Nobody wants to see people who are ill pursued in this manner. Hospitals have discretion and should use it.

“My understanding from the HSE is that is their expectation and they want to hear about any cases where it is not happening. Compassion and common sense should prevail.”

CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan described the practice as “disgraceful” and said cancer patients should be given a medical card automatically which would free them from the unnecessary worry and burden of charges.

Public patients are liable for an €80-a-night in-patient charge which rises to a maxium of €800 in a year.

“When I was undergoing cancer treatment I did not get a medical card but my husband who was a mature student received one. The system is unfair,” said Ms Phelan.

Chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society, Averil Power, said the letters are leading to distress and worry for patients as they undergo cancer treatment.

She called for an end to the use of debt collectors for cancer patients.

The society said patients are being sent letters threatening legal action and warning them their name will be published in ‘Stubbs Gazette’.

James Treacy, managing director of the ‘Gazette’, said he objected to the use of his publication in this way and would be seeking the removal of any reference to it in any letter.

He said it is not applicable in these cases as inclusion in ‘Stubbs Gazette’ only follows a registered judgement.

Léa Hearst from Dublin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, spoke of how she was extremely upset to get one of the debt collector’s letters: “I’m really grateful the Irish Cancer Society is raising this issue. I was shocked when I started getting calls and letters on a regular basis from a debt collection agency. I found this extremely upsetting in the middle of fighting my cancer.

“I was very fearful about what it might mean for me if I didn’t deal directly with debt collectors. To be charged for basic treatment was hard to take in the first place, but to have that charge sent to a debt collector added a great deal of stress to a very difficult situation,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said patients who attend public hospitals are, depending on their eligibility, and subject to certain exemptions, liable to statutory charges.

“The HSE has a statutory obligation to charge and collect these charges and hospitals have the discretion to operate payment plans where appropriate,” she said.

“If any patient has difficulty paying a hospital bill we would advise they contact their hospital directly.

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