Irish soldiers cross Border to access medical treatment under €1.50-a-week scheme

‘It took a couple of weeks to get it all sorted,’ says Defence Forces member who travelled to Belfast for procedure amid long waiting lists in Republic

When Defence Forces member Seán was told the symptoms he was displaying could indicate bowel cancer, he was initially looking at a months-long wait for a colonoscopy in the public system.

Instead, the soldier, a private with 20 years’ service earning a little over €40,000 a year, headed to Belfast to have the procedure privately. “I think it took a couple of weeks to get it all sorted out,” he recalls.

The HSE ultimately footed the bill under the Northern Ireland Planned Healthcare Scheme, established in the wake of Brexit in order to effectively retain EU arrangements for cross-Border healthcare provision on the island.

Not long after, when Seán’s young son needed a procedure and was told there was 54-month waiting list, he too went North and had the issue addressed within a few weeks.

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What is novel about the cases is that their treatments were organised by the PDForra Medical Assistance Scheme (PMAS), an initiative instigated by then national support officer Damien Quigley back in 2017 after reading an article in a newspaper about the EU directive that allowed people who travel for treatment and then claim back the cost.

He read up on the detail, spoke to the HSE and, he recalls, thought “we could do something with this”.

Quigley and the organisation set about creating a private healthcare scheme they believe to be unique, in that it facilitates prompt treatment for its members for just €1.50 a week.

At a time when those who were not officers in the Defence Forces were put on public waiting lists if they could not afford to pay for treatment themselves, even if they were suffering from issues relating to their work, PDForra sought €100,000 from the Department of Defence to get the project going.

“They told us it wouldn’t be appropriate for one Government department to subsidise another, or for it to subsidise cross-Border travel for medical treatment, so they wouldn’t give us anything,” said PDForra president Mark Keane at the organisation’s annual conference in Cavan on Tuesday.

Instead, the organisation picked a member with a knee problem – apparently there is no shortage of them – and sent him North as a trial run. When things went to plan, PDForra itself put up €150,000, and 439 surgeries later, most of them performed in Belfast, but some much further afield in Europe, the organisation can arrange care for 30 members in a busy month. The HSE, he said, is very helpful.

“We work with Kingsbridge Hospital [a private hospital in Belfast],” said Quigley of the scheme, which now has about 3,400 subscribers, more than half the organisation’s wider membership.

“We get the member to take out a credit union loan, which we guarantee. They then have to pay the bill out of that, but the HSE reimburses them within six to seven weeks and, at that stage, we cover any shortfall, as well as the small bit of interest that will have built up.”

About 80 per cent of the treatments arranged are for issues with an occupational aspect, he said, with a lot of knee and hip surgeries, but the scheme essentially covers anything provided publicly by the HSE. There have been a few vasectomies, and a recent case in which a cyst was discovered on the ovaries of a member undergoing IVF who went to Belfast to have that treated, and has since had a baby.

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