Limerick East): I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 29 together.
To date 1,631 applications have been made to the Compensation Tribunal, of which 1,483 are primary claimants, 83 are dependants and 65 are carers.
In accordance with the tribunal scheme, claimants must have applied within six months of the establishment of the tribunal, that is, on or before 21 June 1996, or must apply within six months of the date upon which they first became aware of the fact that they have been diagnosed positive for hepatitis C antibodies or hepatitis C virus. In exceptional cases the tribunal may in its absolute discretion extend the time limit and shall do so in the case of any claimant who it is satisfied was under 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. The number of additional applications that may be made to the tribunal cannot be anticipated.
The tribunal has heard 140 cases to date, making 139 awards and disallowing 1 claim. The awards made by the tribunal to date range from £15,200 to £332,756 and no award of the tribunal has been rejected. There is one award which is the subject of judicial review proceedings. The total amount of the awards made to date is approximately £15.5 million.
The scheme provides that the Minister for Health, if he considers it appropriate may amend the scheme, but no such amendment shall operate to remove, restrict or diminish in any way rights or benefits conferred on persons entitled to claim under the scheme in its unamended form. As I have already stated in the House, if I have evidence and I am convinced that the workings of the tribunal are not serving the very best interests of the claimants, or if in my opinion such amendment would improve the scheme, I will use my powers under the scheme to ensure that the tribunal is at all times meeting the needs of persons infected with hepatitis C. As I have already stated in the House, I have been informed by the tribunal that no applicant will be compelled to have his or her case heard without agreement to the date fixed by the tribunal for the hearing. The tribunal has also informed me that to date no hearing date has been allocated to a claimant unless such a date has been sought by the claimant. The tribunal has also informed me that an additional 100 hearings have been scheduled up to 15 January 1997 with a further 40 claims currently awaiting hearing beyond that date. I am satisfied that the tribunal is running smoothly, fairly and efficiently as I had envisaged at the outset.
I would like to inform the House that the Health (Amendment) Act, 1996, came into operation on 23 September 1996. Deputies will recall that this was a central feature of the health care package which I agreed with the various representative organisations.
Persons eligible to receive services under the Act are those, who in the opinion of the chief executive officer of a health board, have contracted hepatitis C directly or indirectly from the use of anti-D product or the receipt within the State of another blood product or a blood transfusion. Eligibility is determined on an individual basis without a means test and applies for the lifetime of the eligible person.
The services to be provided by the health board free of charge to eligible persons under the Act are: (a) general practitioner medical and surgical services; (b) drugs, medicines and medical and surgical appliances; (c) the nursing service specified in section 60 of the Act of 1970 — (home nursing); (d) the service specified in section 61 of the Act of 1970 — (home help); (e) dental, ophthalmic and aural treatment and dental, optical and aural appliances; (f) counselling services in respect of hepatitis C; and (g) such other services as may be prescribed.
At my request each health board has appointed a liaison officer to ensure the smooth operation of the delivery of services under the Act, to act as a contact point for individuals and with the various interest groups whose members will be availing of services under the Act. My Department will continue to maintain contact with the representative organisations and the health board liaison officers to ensure that any initial problems that may arise can be tackled quickly and effectively.
Less there be any doubt about the matter I wish to confirm to the House again that whatever resources that are required to implement the Act fully will be provided by the Government. These new primary care services are, of course, in addition to the special hospital in-patient and out-patient services which have been established and developed over the last two years. A sum of £2 million was provided for these services this year.
There are two other remaining elements in the health care package to which I would like to refer. I have agreed to establish a statutory consultative council on hepatitis C. My Department has had discussions with the representative organisations on the contents of a draft establishment order. A further draft of the order was sent to the representative organisations in recent weeks for their views.
This new draft takes account of the earlier views of the organisations. As soon as I have received their responses to the latest draft of the establishment order, which I believe will be positive, I will be setting up the consultative council.
The final element of the health care package involves the establishment and funding of a special programme of research on hepatitis C under the aegis of the health research board. This programme will include research projects into hepatitis C as it relates to persons infected through the use of anti-D.
I have allocated £100,000 for this year in respect of suitable projects. I understand that there has been a good response to the health research board's public advertisement for research proposals and a decision on projects to be funded will be taken by the board in the near future.