Limerick East): I propose to take Questions Nos. 1, 19, 27, 32 and 35 together.
It is a matter for each person who has been diagnosed positive for hepatitis C antibodies or hepatitis C virus, as a result of receiving a blood transfusion or a blood product within the State, to decide whether to pursue his or her claim to the courts or to the Compensation Tribunal. The making of a claim to the tribunal under the scheme does not involve a waiver of any right of action. During the course of negotiations between my Department and interested groups in November 1995, it was agreed that the time within which a claimant must apply would be extended, from three to six months, as is now the case in the tribunal scheme. In accordance with the tribunal scheme, claimants must apply within six months of the date on which they first become aware of the fact that they have been diagnosed positive for hepatitis C antibodies or hepatitis C virus or within six months of the date of the establishment of the tribunal, whichever date is the later. In exceptional cases the tribunal may in its absolute discretion extend the time limit and shall do so in the case of any claimant whom it is satisfied was under a legal disability by reason of minority or unsoundness of mind at the time at which such claim should otherwise have been made and who applies to it within six months of the cesser of that legal disability. It is not my intention to extend the time limit for applications any further; the closing date for receipt of applications by the tribunal is the 17 June 1996.
Since its inception the tribunal has accepted application forms unsupported by medical data or records. The tribunal records the applications when received and the claimants or solicitors are requested to supply outstanding documentation as soon as it becomes available. The tribunal had been receiving a significant number of specific inquiries from the general public and from the legal profession querying whether the lodgment of the application form without the supporting medical data or records before the 17 June 1996 was sufficient to comply with the closing date. The addition to newspaper advertisements to the effect that the application form is accepted by the tribunal without the supporting medical data or records was made to ease the concerns expressed by claimants and solicitors who may be experiencing some difficulties in obtaining medical records or reports before the closing date.
Cases before the tribunal are heard in accordance with the terms of the scheme. The tribunal relies primarily on written medical reports in its consideration of individual claims. The claimant must, no later than six weeks before the date fixed by the tribunal for the hearing, submit in writing reports prepared by doctors or other health care professionals who have treated or examined the claimant and relevant reports prepared by other experts on which the claimant intends to rely.
The tribunal has been hearing a maximum of 12 cases each sitting week and I am informed that the hearing of the cases in respect of the applications received to date will carry its workload at least to the end of 1997. Claims can be listed for hearing before the tribunal on lodgment of all the relevant documentation. I have been informed by the tribunal that any application for a priority hearing has been and will be dealt with sympathetically by the tribunal.
The total number of persons with hepatitis C who had received a blood transfusion or blood product who have been identified to date is 1,356. The compensation tribunal has to date received 639 applications — at lunch time today the figure was 652. I have been informed by the tribunal that a substantial additional number of applications is expected before the closing date. Since its commencement the tribunal has heard 63 cases. The awards made to date by the tribunal range from £15,500 to £324,321. A total sum of approximately £6.67 million has been awarded to date by the compensation tribunal and no tribunal award has been rejected. The tribunal is running smoothly, fairly and efficiently as had been envisaged and at this stage has hearing dates arranged until 31 July 1996.
The purpose of the Health (Amendment) Act, 1995 is to provide a statutory basis for the provision, to certain persons who have contracted hepatitis C, of general practitioner services, drugs and medical appliances; dental, ophthalmic and aural treatment and dental, aural and optical appliances; counselling; home nursing and home help services, free of charge and without a means test. The Bill, which passed Fourth and Fifth Stages last week, states:
A health board shall make available without charge to persons who, in the opinion of the Chief Executive Officer of the board, have contracted hepatitis C directly or indirectly from the use of Human Immuno-globulin Anti-D or the receipt within the State of another blood product or a blood transfusion and to persons of such other classes (if any) as may be prescribed.
An amendment giving the chief executive officer of the relevant health board the power to determine eligibility for the proposed services at his discretion was introduced by me on Committee Stage. Its introduction followed discussions with representatives of Transfusion Positive which was concerned that a small number of its members would experience difficulties in acquiring medical records.
In determining eligibility it is envisaged that the chief executive officer's decision would involve,inter alia, consideration of medical opinion submitted by the applicant's treating physician and that of the relevant health board's director of public health, Eligibility for the services proposed does not therefore require a determination by a court or by the compensation tribunal. There may be individuals who, for reasons best known to themselves, might not make a claim to the courts or to the compensation tribunal but who will still be eligible for services to be provided under the Health (Amendment) Bill, 1995, when enacted.
It is proposed that a range of services will be provided under the Act and preliminary discussions have already taken place with some of the relevant bodies. Detailed negotiations cannot commence until the necessary legislation is in place. As soon as the Bill has passed all stages in both Houses, I hope to finalise discussions with the health boards and negotiations with the appropriate professional groups to ensure that the services to be provided under the Act for persons who have been diagnosed positive for hepatitis C will be available to them at an early date.
In December 1995, when I announced the health care package for persons who have contracted hepatitis C, I also indicated that I would establish a statutory consultative council to advise me on matters relating to hepatitis C. A draft establishment order was circulated to interested groups and I am currently considering a number of amendments to take into account the views expressed by them. I will again consult with the interested groups at an early date and following such consultation will formally establish the council. I hope to complete this process as soon as possible.