Credit unions have started providing a simplified loan service for people wishing to have medical operations abroad as part of a new approach to circumvent long waiting lists in Ireland.
An HSE representative attended the official opening of Hospital Clinica Benidorm, a €60 million private hospital in Denia, Spain, providing ‘foreign patient care’ to people in Ireland.
Up to 1,500 operations have been booked each year at the Spanish hospital for Irish patients. The hospital offers Irish food and other familiar comforts.
Almost all of the treatment currently available in the Irish public system will be provided in the new Spanish hospital.
New figures have revealed that the HSE has spent more than £2million this year on private hospitals in Europe under the EU’s cross-border directive, where patients treated privately abroad are then reimbursed by the state.
However, many people cannot afford the upfront costs, with operations such as hip replacements in Spain costing €10,000.
To circumvent this problem, an agency that connects patients to EU hospitals for a commission, Healthcare Abroad, is now partnering with Irish credit unions to streamline loan applications.
First South Credit Union chief executive George Cantwell explained that people can take out loans and then repay them when they are reimbursed for the cost of the operation by the HSE.
“People don’t come directly to us. They handle overseas health care, determine eligibility, and help the individual with paperwork.
“They would then give us a warning to say ‘Mary Murphy is looking for this facility’.”
Eligible patients can apply for a loan from the credit union with as little as €5 in their account.
Paul Byrne, chief operating officer of Healthcare Abroad, said the agreement with the credit unions marks a new milestone.
The HSE acknowledged that waiting lists create opportunities for private hospitals overseas and said the involvement of credit unions could allow patients to be treated earlier.
HSE Business Unit General Manager Catherine Donohue said: “In an ideal world we wouldn’t have patients waiting, but there are patients waiting. It’s a very valuable and lucrative market for private providers, and public patients benefit enormously.
She called these new funding opportunities “exciting” for patients.
Michael Carroll from Ballyphehane, Cork, was one of the first patients treated at the Spanish Hospital last week for cataract surgery, with support from the Credit Union.
“It was like having a plastic bag over my eyes. I was very unsteady and it was affecting my balance as well. The clarity when they took the bandages off was amazing. I don’t think my eyesight has ever been as good.
He did not want to wait for treatment in Cork as doctors said his eyesight was rapidly deteriorating.
“Because of its name, I thought the cross-border directive was only about the border with Northern Ireland,” he said.
Spain is now the second most popular destination after the UK with 517 patients treated last year.
Among those involved in Healthcare Abroad is Chris Goodey, the former chief executive of the National Association of General Practitioners, whose collapse is being investigated by the Corporate Enforcement Authority.