TD to seek Dáil approval to start processing Primary Medical Certs now, not January
Approximately 1,500 people who are entitled to access the disabled driver scheme which was suspended last June will now have to wait until January before the scheme recommences. However, Denis Naughten has expressed concern that because staff are also involved with managing Covid-19 “the waiting list could actually increase by 150 people every month”.
Backtracking from a previous commitment, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has informed Denis Naughten that the processing of Primary Medical Certificates for the disabled drivers and passengers scheme will only restart from 1st January 2021.
“This is not acceptable and there is no reason why applications could not have been processed over the last number of weeks while HSE doctors were waiting for a technical change to the law, to allow these people access to a reduction in VRT and VAT when purchasing or adapting a vehicle after a tortuous process. It also exempts them from motor tax and tolls and offers a fuel grant,” said Deputy Naughten.
“For many disabled people who have no access to public transport, this is the only assistance available to them to get around as the Motorised Transport Grant and Mobility Allowance were both suspended seven years ago. We have 1,500 people effectively marooned in their own homes due to these delays.
“When Minister Donohoe announced at the Dáil Committee that the processing of applications for the Primary Medical Cert had reopened, I questioned him on it and subsequently presented him with evidence that the scheme had not reopened to new applications.
“He has now clarified his position that the scheme will re-open from 1st January but has failed to confirm if additional staff will be made available to clear the backlog that has built up since last June following the withdrawal of the scheme.”
Over the last number of months Deputy Naughten, Chair of the Dáil Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, has campaigned for the reinstatement of the Disabled Drivers Scheme as its suspension was effectively marooning people with a disability who did not have direct access to public transport.
Watch the Minister backtrack during the committee discussion here:
Previous statements and background to the problem:
Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach debate –
Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020
Finance Bill 2020: Committee Stage (Resumed)
I move amendment No. 138:
In page 55, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
“Amendment of section 92 of Finance Act 1989
- (1) Section 92 of the Finance Act 1989 is amended—
(a) in subsection (2)(a), by deleting “including such further medical criteria in relation to disabilities as may be considered necessary,”, and
(b) in subsection (5)—
(i) in the definition of “primary medical certification”, by substituting “accordingly;” for “accordingly.”, and
(ii) by inserting the following definition after the definition of “primary medical certification”:
“ ‘severely and permanently disabled person’ means a person who satisfies one or more of the following criteria:
(a) the person is wholly or almost wholly without the use of both legs;
(b) the person is wholly without the use of one of their legs and almost wholly without the use of the other leg such that they are severely restricted as to movement of their lower limbs;
(c) the person has no hands or no arms;
(d) the person has one leg or no legs;
(e) the person is wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg;
(f) the person has the medical condition of dwarfism and has serious difficulties in the movement of their lower limbs.”.
(2) This section shall come into operation on 1 January 2021.”.
I will speak to this amendment as it deals with areas that have been raised by Deputies in parliamentary questions so I will explain the intent.
The amendment provides for the insertion of a new section in the Bill in relation to the disabled drivers and passengers scheme. Deputies will be aware that the medical assessments conducted by the HSE in respect of access to the scheme have been on hold since the Supreme Court decision earlier this year. The Supreme Court found that the regulations setting out the medical criteria underpinning qualification for the scheme were inconsistent with the mandate provided in section 92 of the Finance Act 1989. This amendment brings the medical criteria into the primary legislation.
The measure is designed to address the immediate issue raised by the Supreme Court and allows for assessments to recommence without further delay in circumstances where the legal basis for such assessments is clarified. I consider this to be an interim solution only. While I am very aware of the importance of this scheme to those who benefit from it, I am also aware of the disquiet expressed by Members of this House and others in respect of the difficulties around access to the scheme.
With this in mind I have asked my officials to undertake a comprehensive review of the scheme, to include a broader review of mobility supports for persons with disabilities, and on foot of that review to bring forward proposals for consideration.
I remind the committee that earlier in proceedings, I indicated that assessments in respect of the certificate were recommencing on the back of a communication I issued to the HSE. I wish to confirm again that the commencement of assessments will only begin on the implementation of the Bill.
I welcome the Minister’s move in this regard. I also welcome his clarification because his comments to me yesterday were that the scheme was opened up again, which is not the case. I brought this to the Minister’s attention just before we came into the meeting. The position is now that there will be no processing of the primary medical certificates until the beginning of next year when this legislation is enacted. The difficulty I raised yesterday with the Minister was that there are 1,500 people who should have a primary medical certificate now who, because of the suspension of the scheme and because of Covid-19 will not have it at the end of this year and the indication I am getting from the HSE is that it will not start to deal with this particular backlog until the new year.
This will be in the context of Covid-19, the vaccination programme and developments relating to that. As a result of the suspension of this scheme, the 1,500 people who should have got their primary medical certificates this year will not get them until some time next year. Those who apply next year will be obliged to wait a considerable period before they get access. In line with the Minister’s comment to me yesterday that if there is a problem with this he will look at it, will he give a commitment that he will consider providing some type of additional resource to ensure that this backlog is addressed in a very timely manner?
I agree with Deputy Mairéad Farrell that this scheme affects the lives of many people. This is why the suspension of the scheme in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling is a serious issue. While a number of people are waiting to obtain access to the scheme, I will work with the HSE and raise this matter with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to see what we can do to process the outstanding applications as soon as possible.
In response to Deputy Denis Naughten, I have already confirmed the processing of applications relating to the scheme will recommence on 1 January next. As I said to Deputy Mairéad Farrell, I will talk to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth regarding what can be done to process applications quickly in light of what has happened this year. This is a very sensitive matter. I anticipate that we will have to assess the current eligibility criteria for the scheme because most of the contact I get is about that. While it will be difficult to pin down the exact time that will be involved in doing this work, I would like to have a report and a conclusion to this process for next year’s Finance Bill because this matter has been ongoing for a period and I would like to be in a position to be able to amend next year’s Bill in order to deal with the conclusions that will come from this process.
Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach debate –
Monday, 16 Nov 2020
Finance Bill 2020: Committee Stage
I have a query regarding section 6, which concerns the related issue of the primary medical certificate and disabled driver’s allowance. As the Minister knows, approximately 1,500 people will be denied access to the scheme this year, and a further 150 per month will be denied access to the support because of the suspension of the issuing of primary medical certificates last June on foot of a Supreme Court decision. Even though this has been raised numerous times in the House, including on Second Stage, the Minister of State was not able to provide an update as to when the suspension will be lifted.
I welcome the provisions in section 6 on the mobility allowance. However, the allowance is available only to those who were already in the scheme prior to 2012. The motorised transport grant has not been available since 2012. Both schemes were suspended in that year. I acknowledge that there are complexities associated with reintroducing them. The third scheme, the only other support to allow people with disabilities to get around the State, was the disabled drivers scheme, which provided tax relief in respect of purchasing and adapting cars, tolls and fuel costs. Those with a disability who do not have access to public transport and who did not receive a primary medical certificate prior to June of this year are effectively being marooned in their own homes as a result of the suspension. I find it deeply disappointing that even though this issue was raised on Second Stage, we got absolutely no indication as to when the suspension will be lifted. We need clarity on the matter. People with disabilities who have mobility issues need to know when the scheme is going to be open to them again. As already stated, by the end of this year 1,500 people will have been denied access to the scheme, and further 150 per month will be denied access if it is not reintroduced.
I want to talk about the primary medical certificate. The fact that so many people are now in limbo must be addressed. We need a time by which a new primary medical certificate scheme will be in place. Those who are trapped, especially those who have no access to public transport or any other means of transport, need to get something sorted out. The court case was in June but it is now November so we need to see a timeframe for resolving this. I understand that responsibility is being passed over and back between those responsible for disabilities, health and finance, but the Department of Finance needs to introduce the scheme. It needs to make sure it is introduced prior to Christmas in order that people will have some certainty, especially in these times, in which they are marooned or isolated and feel they are being forgotten about on foot of a court case back in June.
Deputies Naughten and Canney referred to two different schemes. As Deputy Naughten correctly noted, the mobility scheme was closed in 2013. We are dealing with the issue of participants who were on the scheme and ensuring that the taxation of their allowance from a scheme that is now closed will be fully dealt with. Deputies Canney and Naughten then referred to the scheme that is in place, namely, the disabled drivers scheme. While this will be the subject of an amendment to the Finance Bill later in the process, there was a Supreme Court hearing in respect of the operation of this scheme earlier in the year. In the aftermath of the scheme, the HSE ceased issuing the certificates that Deputy Canney referred to, which have been the cause of concern and worry for many, as has been raised with me by other Deputies. I have written to the HSE indicating that it should continue with the release of the required medical certification. I issued that communication in recent weeks and it should begin to have an effect on the issues the two Deputies referred to.
The effect of that communication, along with the amendment I will bring in, will be to restore the scheme to its original operation. When we debate the amendment later in the process, I will indicate my intention to work with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, and his Department to launch a review of the scheme and to consider what the future of the disabled drivers scheme could be. A number of issues have arisen and matters are frequently raised with me in respect of the operation of the scheme. It is now appropriate to step back and assess how the scheme is operating and what its role should be in the future. In the interim, the scheme will continue to operate as it was intended to.
I welcome the Minister’s comments, which are very positive, but I seek some clarity from him. According to the feedback I have received from constituents, it seems these primary medical certificates are being processed again. Will the Minister clarify that, and ensure that the HSE starts to process the certificates and deal with the backlog? My concern is that many of the staff who were processing these applications until June or July when they were suspended are now doing other work and dealing with Covid-19. While, in theory, the scheme has been reopened, the difficulty is there is no one to carry out the assessment. As a result, 1,500 people are being denied access to the disabled drivers scheme.
The Minister stated the scheme is being reinstated, pending a review of its original design. Does that mean appeals that would have been successful last year or the previous year will not now be successful? The difficulty is that the medical practitioner within the HSE locally has no discretion in respect of the scheme. Someone either qualifies or does not qualify through not having the use of two limbs, for example, but there has, historically, been discretion at the appeals stage, which is dealt with by the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire.
Will the discretion that has been used by the appeals board in Dún Laoghaire still apply as a result of the changes the Minister is bringing forward?
I will deal with the second question first. There is no change in the appeals process. If a case was successful in the appeals process a year ago, one should have every reason to think the same case would be successful in the appeals process again. There is no change in the appeals process as a result of the communication I have had with the HSE.
As to whether this now means that the application for the medical certificates for this scheme will continue to be processed, the answer is “Yes”. The processing of those applications should have recommenced. I am not aware of there being issues regarding the availability of resources to process those applications. I have not heard of any new issues relating to that but if the Deputy is aware of issues relating to appeals, he should let me know. There is no change in the actual process in terms of who is carrying out the evaluation of the applications or in terms of the criteria for the applications being successful. I imagine that those kind of matters will form the subject of the review I mentioned a moment ago. I am very eager to get this review up and running very soon because I get a significant amount of contact about this scheme. I am eager to see if the review can be set up and concluded next year because there are many issues relating to this scheme, some of which were highlighted in the Supreme Court ruling on the matter. I am of the view that for clarity about how the scheme should operate and for those who desire to participate in the scheme, we need to review where it is and see how it can be made as clear, effective and fair as possible. That is why a review is needed but there will be no change in appeals or processing of applications.