I have been contacted by the campaign co-ordinators of Down Syndrome Ireland's Meath-Louth branch about the Health Service Executive's devastating decision to cut its funding by 60%. The branch provides a vital programme for children with Down's syndrome aged between one and five years. There are 52 children enrolled in the programme, under which early intervention specialists visit the homes of children with Down's syndrome for 90 minutes every two weeks throughout the year. The specialists work with the child and his or her parents, providing a wealth of knowledge, experience and support. The goal is to ensure every child reaches his or her full potential and is equipped to lead as independent a life as possible in adulthood.
The early intervention programme does not have administration costs as it has been run by parents on a voluntary basis since its establishment in 1982. For 36 years it has provided great support for children and parents. Of the €75,000 it costs each year to provide services for more than 50 children, approximately €50,000 is raised by parents, with the balance of €25,000 being met until now by HSE funding from lottery grant money. In January the HSE reduced the grant it provides from €25,000 to €10,000, or by 60%. It is extremely unfortunate that this meaningful and necessary programme will have to consider what impact the cut in funding will have. It is highly likely the branch will have to reduce the number of home visits made to children for the first time since the programme began. That would be devastating for the 52 families involved. The €15,000 the programme will lose is a significant amount and goes a long way towards helping children with Down's syndrome and their families.
In recent years the organisation has shielded this vital programme from cuts because of a decline in fundraising income. Unfortunately, it may no longer be possible to do so from September onwards. We do not want children with special needs to fall behind. Early intervention is vital and the specialists provide speech and language therapy and teach basic skills such as how to hold a pencil. The aim is to allow the children to start primary school at the age of five or six years on the same terms as children without special needs.
Parents raise €50,000 per annum for the programme, which is a substantial amount of money. In fairness to the Health Service Executive, for some years it also provided €25,000 in annual funding before this funding was cut at the stroke of a pen. As I stated, the Meath-Louth branch of Down Syndrome Ireland has been operating for 36 years. It is an extremely important organisation and we must ensure it can continue.