I welcome the Minister of State to the House. All of us are fully aware of the trauma and anxiety undergone within a family when one of its members has been diagnosed with cancer of one type or another. While many health board CEOs in the past have used their discretion to grant medical card services to identified cancer sufferers, anxiety could be allayed at what is a difficult time for families if the Minister for Health and Children would grant access to full medical card services for all cancer sufferers. There is often a delay in processing an application, which may or may not be successful. The anxiety undergone by cancer sufferers in those situations is unacceptable and can be easily remedied. Unfortunately and tragically, many people who have been identified as cancer sufferers tend to have a short life expectancy beyond that point. While there is improvement in the overall cure rate, statistics clearly indicate that by and large people tend to survive for only a relatively short period after diagnosis. For that reason it would not be costly to the Exchequer to give such cover to this select group of patients.
The same applies in the case of asthmatics. The Minister of State will be aware of the concern within the medical profession over the increasing number of people suffering from asthma. Whether it is lifestyle, food, the environment or whatever, greater numbers of young people are now suffering from asthma. It is most important that they have readily available to them the medicine prescribed by their general practitioners. Very often they need inhalers and these can be and are becoming increasingly expensive. Due to the concern of parents for their asthmatic children's welfare and the need for constant access to inhalers, this group would benefit enormously from the extension of the medical card service. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that preventive medicine is always better than the cure. If asthma is allowed to develop there can be serious consequences for the sufferer, which could be far more expensive, whereas constant control and monitoring is much better than allowing a chronic condition to develop.
Finally, I want to raise the matter of coeliacs. Again, because of the nature of their condition, an expensive individualised diet must be provided. Whereas an ordinary loaf of bread costs approximately €1, the cost for coeliacs is €4 and more, and likewise in the case of other food they may require. Once a person is diagnosed a coeliac he or she must be constantly vigilant as regards food intake, whether in the home or outside. They are under constant threat giving rise to enormous expense in some cases.
I am suggesting to the Minister of State that these groups be identified as people who automatically merit medical cards, whether cancer patients, asthmatics or coeliacs. Such an initiative would eliminate the need for far higher costs when their conditions reach a chronic stage and hospitalisation is required, as is the norm.
When one considers the statistics on people admitted to hospital through accident and emergency units with chronic illnesses for lack of access to inhalers, in the case of asthmatics, or proper diet as regards coeliacs, this is far more expensive for the Exchequer than issuing medical cards. In the case of cancer sufferers, I reiterate and emphasise the importance of alleviating the suffering of patients and their families. The situation for those concerned is sufficiently traumatic without adding to it. For that reason I ask the Minister of State to request the Minister for Health and Children to grant automatic entitlement to those particular categories. We do not begrudge access to medical cards for people over 70. However, many people in that category have sufficient resources to avail of private medicine if they so wish. In the categories I have mentioned, undue hardship and anxiety may arise, to add to the trauma of the particular condition.