Wednesday 16th October 2013
Troika led Budget cuts unkind to the heart & soul people of Ireland
* Pensioners, savers, working mothers hit
* Boost for business, tourism, job creation
* Family health insurance costs set to rise
THE Government waited for the final Budget under the troika to implement some of the unkindest cuts of the entire bailout period.
Pensioners, medical card holders, working mothers, the young unemployed, savers and families with health insurance were all targeted in a series of painful cuts and tax increases totalling €2.5bn.
Low- to middle-income families with sick children are in danger of losing their medical cards as a result of a widescale ‘review’.
The cull of more than 150,000 medical cards is emerging as a potential flashpoint of the Budget – overshadowing the move to give a GP-only card to every child aged under five.
The shock measure came on top of one in 10 pensioners over the age of 70 losing their medical card due to a change in income thresholds.
Health insurance costs for families could prove explosive. Premiums are likely to rise after the move to reduce the tax relief on policies and charge insurers more for using public hospitals. The measure is expected to indirectly affect 90pc of health insurance premiums.
Pensioners are also set to lose their telephone allowance, which will cost them €114 a year.
But the Budget did contain measures designed to stimulate the economy, create jobs and boost tourism, the construction sector and the property market.
The Coalition also began to crack down on the black economy and pledged to tackle the contentious issue of tax avoidance by multinationals.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan said the purpose of the Budget was to continue the progress already made, reinforce policies to grow the economy, establish the conditions to create jobs “and to prepare for exiting the bailout programme”.
He added: “We are well along the recovery path and it is time now, as a nation, to begin to look forward.”
But Fianna Fail finance spokesman Michael McGrath picked out the scrapping of the bereavement grant as an example of the cruel cuts in the Budget.
“Even the dead, Minister, are not safe from this Government,” he said.
Budget 2014 contained a series of savage cuts, which the Government had previously avoided carrying out. The Coalition aims to push people out to spend by hiking up the tax on interest on savings from 33pc to 41pc.
No change was announced to child benefit, but it had already been signalled that the rate for the fourth child and subsequent children will fall by €10 a child to €130.
Workers escaped a hike in income tax and there is no change to the controversial universal social charge.
But homeowners are facing a full year of property tax. This will effectively mean a doubling of the tax from January. The average home faces a bill of €300 for property tax next year.
Pension savers were also hit with a higher levy on private schemes next year and another levy in 2015.
Mr Noonan said he was lowering the tax relief on health insurance premiums, but he insisted this would only affect “gold-plated” policies.
However, the body that represents health insurers said the change to tax reliefs for policies would affect 90pc of all health insurance products.
Insurance Ireland’s Michael Horan said the change would not just hit the more expensive policies.
The cost of a pint and a measure of spirits will rise by 10c each. Mr Noonan also announced a rise of 20c in the excise duty on cigarettes.
Wine was hit again this year. The cost of a bottle rose by 50c last night, a year after €1 was imposed on the tipple.
Women who have babies from next January will see the maternity benefit “standardised” at €230 a week for 26 weeks.
Most women get a higher rate of €262, so there will be a huge loss for new mums.
And the bereavement grant of €850 goes.
Mr Noonan promised to crack down on moves to “aggressively” lower corporation tax by multinationals.
A host of measures was announced to encourage people to set up in business on their own.
Some 26 “pro-business and pro-jobs” initiatives were announced.
And all the retail banks in the country will be hit with an annual bill of €150m every year for three years – a cost that it is feared will be passed on to consumers.
Homeowners will be incentivised to renovate their homes with a tax credit if they use a builder who is paying VAT.
The Home Renovation Incentive will give up to €4,050 for renovations and maintenance and can be claimed on home improvements costing between €5,000 and €30,000.
But the medical cards clampdown will have wide-ranging consequences.
More than 155,000 people are at risk of losing their full medical cards amid warnings that 2014 could be the toughest year yet for the health service.
Under the measures announced in the Budget, the income thresholds for the over-70s will see 35,000 lose their eligibility for a medical card and downgraded to a GP-visit card in a bid to save €25m.
Another 22,000 people who were unemployed and promised they could hold on to their medical card for three years after they got a job are also to be reduced to GP-visit cards as part of an €11m crackdown.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) has also been ordered to shave €113m from its medical card spending next year by pursuing people who are no long eligible for reasons such as employment, emigration or death.
Health Minister James Reilly, pictured, was unable to say how many this “probity” measure would remove, but Fianna Fail has estimated it could see 100,000 lose their medical cards on the basis that each card costs an average of €1,000.
Ryanair targets new routes after the abolition of Irish air travel tax
Ryanair is discussing plans to add new routes or additional frequencies on existing routes
Ryanair has said it aims to increase its traffic at Irish airports by one million passengers a year after the Irish government scrapped an air tax.
The airline said its move was in “direct response” to the scrapping of the travel tax,announced in the Irish budget on Tuesday.
The Irish air travel tax is three euros (£2.50) per passenger, per flight, but will be abolished from April 2014.
Ryanair said the abolition helped to “restore Ireland’s competitiveness”.
The tax was introduced at Irish airports almost five years ago.
The airline said that that during that period, “traffic at the main Irish airports had declined from 30.5m passengers in 2008 to 23.5m in 2012”.
The period also coincided with the international economic downturn, with the Republic of Ireland suffering one of the deepest recessions in the eurozone.
In a statement, Ryanair said it believes that much of the Republic’s lost airport traffic “can now be recovered thanks to the abolition of the travel tax, which makes Ireland a more competitive and attractive destination for inbound visitors, particularly those on short flights from the UK and Continental Europe”.
The airline has invited staff from airports in Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Knock and Kerr to meetings in the Irish capital on Thursday and Friday to discuss its growth plans.
Michael Cawley from Ryanair said they would discuss “how and where we can add new routes or additional frequencies on existing routes” from next April, in an attempt to achieve their targets.
Irish prescription charges now up by 66% after Budget
Charges for prescription medicines for medical card holders are to increase by as much as 66%.
Currently people with medical cards pay €1.50 for every item dispensed to them, subject to a cap of €19.50 per month. But under the new rules, they will have to pay €2.50 per item, with the monthly cap increased by 28% to €25.
The charges are scheduled to come into effect on Dec 1 and are expected to raise €43m for the Department of Health next year. Prescription items were dispensed free to medical card holders up to 2010, when a 50c charge was introduced, capped at a monthly total of €10, so yesterday’s hike represents a five-fold increase in four years.
The Irish Patients’ Association criticised the move, saying many people who were reliant on a variety of drugs could not afford the extra burden and may try to ration their medication.
Charities working with the homeless have also repeatedly criticised the charges, arguing they force people to choose between medication and food or finding a hostel for the night.
The Carers Association described the move as “deplorable”. “This charge disproportionately impacts on the sick and older people, many of whom have ongoing, complex medication regimes”.
Nursing Homes Ireland was also highly critical and called for nursing home residents to be exempted from having to pay the charges. CEO Tadhg Daly said: “The imposition of further charges on nursing home residents who already contribute significantly towards the cost of their care is incomprehensible and unfair.
“The Health Amendment Act 2010 provided for a number of categories of persons to be exempt from the prescription charge and it is incumbent on Minister Reilly, who promised to abolish the charge prior to election, to add nursing home residents to the listing of exempted groups of persons.”
Health Minister James Reilly said around 65mprescription medicines and other medical items were expected to be dispensed under the medical card scheme this year.
“The prescription charge is intended to address rising costs in the medical card scheme and to influence to some degree demand and prescribing patterns.”
The Irish Medical Organisation criticised the move, noting the minister in opposition in 2010 had expressed concern that the introduction of charges could act as a disincentive to people to take necessary medicines.
The minister also announced another plan to make savings on drugs for medical card holders by delisting certain products from the list of approved items for reimbursement. He is aiming to shave €10m off costs in this way.
Gene mutation speeds up brain decline in Alzheimer’s
This is the first study to use brain scans to show what this gene does?
A rare genetic mutation associated with Alzheimer’s disease has been found to accelerate the loss of brain tissue and lead to quicker mental decline, researchers said.
People with the TREM2 gene variant lost brain tissue twice as fast as healthy elderly people, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“This is the first study to use brain scans to show what this gene variant does, and it’s very surprising,” said co-author Paul Thompson of the University of Southern California.
This gene speeds up brain loss at a terrific pace.
Thompson and colleagues did MRI scans on 478 adults, whose average age was 76, over the course of two years.
They found that mutation carriers lost 1.4 percent to 3.3 percent more of their brain tissue than non-carriers, and the deterioration happened twice as fast.
Brain tissue loss was concentrated in memory centers of the brain, including the temporal lobe and hippocampus.
The TREM2 variant was first described in January as rare mutation, existing in about one percent of the North American and European population, that could triple a person’s lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The genetic mutation has also been linked to an increased likelihood of Parkinson’s disease and a rare form of early brain decline called Nasu-Hakola disease.
Eircom now enters the television market to compete with the other two Sky and UPC
And now we have three?
EIRCOM has launched a new television service which places the firm in direct competition with Sky and UPC.
Similar to its rivals, the product – entitled eVision – offers packages of television channels with add-on options such as Sky Sports, Sky Movies and Setanta Sports.
The basic package includes 34 stations and costs €10 per month.
New customers who sign up before the end of this year will receive the first half-year free of charge.
Speaking after a demonstration of the new service, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte welcomed Eircom’s decision to enter the market.
“The new television service the company is launching today is a good illustration of the benefits that this investment can bring,” he said. “This innovation should provide more choice for TV consumers, more competition driving down prices and a boost in demandfor broadband services that are becoming available.”
Big clawed fossil had spider-like brain
A close up of the head reveals where the creature’s two claws would have protruded from
Scientists have discovered the best-preserved nervous system in an ancient fossil.
Dating back 520 million years, the clawed spider-like fossil shows clear evidence of a brain and of nerve cords running through the creature’s trunk.
The specimen now confirms that the ancestors of spiders and scorpions were related, but branched off more than half-a-billion years ago.
A team of international scientists present their work in Nature.
The “great appendage” arthropods, are an extinct group of joint-legged creatures with large claw-like appendages – or growths – protruding from their heads.
The nervous system tends to be similar between major groups of animals, which helps palaeontologists work out how they are related, explained Greg Edgecombe from the Natural History Museum in London.
“The nervous system is one of the more reliable tool-kits we have. We were trying to investigate whether there was evidence for the preservation of neural tissues from very early parts of the animal fossil record,” he told BBC News.
The nervous systems of the Alalcomenaeus fossil (L), a larval horseshoe crab (M) and a scorpion (R)
“What we’ve been working with is fossils with very fine anatomical preservation from the Cambrian period. These have given us information about brains, the nerve cords and the neural tissue that goes into the eyes.”
New to science, the fossil was recently discovered in South China and is part of the genus Alalcomenaeus. This group had segmented bodies equipped with about a dozen pairs of appendages which enabled the creatures to swim or crawl.
It was placed in a CT scanner and compared with other arthropods in order to understand its evolution. The team then used 3D software to see structures not visible on the surface of the fossil.
“People like myself who are mad keen on creepy crawlies want to understand how very strange early arthropods relate to living ones,” added Dr Edgecombe.
“By having access to the nervous system it allows us to study the evolutionary relationships of very ancient fossils using the same kind of information that we would use for living animals.”
Co-author, Xiaoya Ma, also from the Natural History Museum, said: “It is very exciting to use new techniques to successfully reveal such a complete central nervous system from a 520-million-year old fossil, and in such detail.”
She told the BBC’s Science in Action programme that the high resolution of the reconstructed image allowed the team to see “the concentrated neural structures in the head region”. They could also observe the segments of the brain associated with the claw-like appendages.
The fossil belongs to an extinct group of marine arthropods known as megacheirans, Greek for “large claws”.
To infer the evolutionary relationships between species, the fields of palaeontology and neuroanatomy together.
Nicholas Strausfeld was from the anatomy side of the team at the University of Arizona, US.
“We now know that the megacheirans had central nervous systems very similar to today’s horseshoe crabs and scorpions,” said Prof Strausfeld.
“This means the ancestors of spiders and their kin lived side by side with the ancestors of crustaceans in the lower Cambrian.”
He added that their prominent appendages were clearly used for grasping and holding.
“Based on their location, we can now say that the biting mouthparts in spiders and their relatives evolved from these appendages.”
The team says they expect to find more fossils dating even further back, which will shed new light onto the ancestors of many of today’s arthropods.