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Medical Aids and Appliances

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 25 November 2021

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Questions (10)

Emer Higgins


10. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans to introduce supports for persons who experience hair loss due to alopecia, cancer treatment or other similar illnesses. [57539/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

I would like to ask the Minister about her Department's plans to introduce support for people who experience hair loss due to alopecia, illness or cancer treatment. Hair loss can be an extremely traumatic side-effect of illness or treatment and I would welcome any move to support those suffering from hair loss as a result of illness.

I thank Deputy Higgins for raising this issue. The treatment benefit scheme is available to insured workers, the self-employed and retired people who have the required number of PRSI contributions. It is also available to their dependent spouse or partner, if applicable. Those who are eligible can avail of dental, optical and hearing services under the scheme. As part of budget 2022, I announced an expansion of the range of services provided under the treatment benefit scheme to provide for a new grant towards the cost of wigs and hairpieces for people who suffer from hair loss due to disease.

Hair loss is a common issue that can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases, such as alopecia, or systemic conditions like cancer. I recognise the physical impact, but also the psychological impact, that sudden hair loss can have on a person’s life and I hope the new grant I am introducing will contribute to improving the quality of life of those who need it.

Under the new scheme, a grant of up to €500 will be available once every calendar year to support people to purchase a wig or hairpiece. The grant will be available from the end of May 2022. The grant will only be available for hair loss in respect of a disease and not due to aging or other natural causes. It will be subject to the normal conditions of the treatment benefit scheme in terms of the required number of PRSI contributions. Legislative provisions for this measure will be set out in the social welfare Bill 2021, which will be published and brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister. That is welcome news. I welcome the extension of the treatment benefit scheme to cover grants towards things like wigs and hairpieces. It is good news for people who suffer from alopecia or who have experienced hair loss due to cancer treatment. Some people might think it is a trivial issue, but many men and women take pride in and confidence from their hair. As is said in adverts, people's hair is often their crown. When that is taken away, whether it involves hair falling out or having to be shaved, that can add further to the trauma people are experiencing through illness.

Providing a grant that would cover half or a third of the cost of wigs will be hugely beneficial, given that many wigs cost between €1,000 and €1,500. As the Minister said, it will improve people's quality of life. I am particularly pleased to hear the Minister say it will be an annual grant that can be drawn down once a year. Obviously, wigs have to be replaced quite regularly. When the Minister said that the payment will be available from May, does that mean May of next year onwards? Will it apply to any wigs purchased next year?

As I said, this is an issue that has been raised with me. It is something that is particularly hard for women. Some people who lose their hair due to chemotherapy may be able to get support for the cost of a wig if they have a medical card. People with alopecia have no automatic entitlement to a medical card. Alopecia can often be a lifelong condition and at present there is no support to help people. I wanted to change that.

Some of these wigs are, as the Deputy said, very expensive, in particular if people are wearing them every day while going to work. It is important that we support the people who need them because alopecia is something that can affect people of all ages right across the board. Hair loss can sometimes be taboo to talk about and women sometimes feel they have to hide it or cannot talk about it. It is not just physical; it can have significant consequences for a person's confidence and mental health.

I thank the Minister. I fully agree with everything she said. It is a huge mark of her respect for people to put this on the Government's agenda. I would like to raise the scope of eligibility for the grant. I would welcome the grant being extended to those who suffer hair loss due not just to physical but also mental illness. I am thinking, in particular, of anorexia which, unfortunately, is quite prevalent in Ireland. A lack of nutrients can lead to hair loss. I would support the grant being extended to those who suffer hair loss for reasons other than those outlined. I hope that might be something the Minister may consider.

I acknowledge the great work carried out by the volunteers in Alopecia Ireland. This is something they have called for, in particular, for people in alopecia. They do much good work to support people. Some people may decide, for whatever reason, that they do not want or need a wig. For those who need one, I want to help them. That is what the grant is about. It is a support for working people. Those who do not qualify for a medical card will have to have the necessary PRSI contributions in order to qualify.

The Deputy mentioned people who have anorexia. It is something I will consider. I do not know to what extent people with anorexia may qualify for a medical card. This is an important measure.

It is a signal that the Government, particularly the Department of Social Protection, is here to help and support people at difficult times in their lives.