Nine elderly Irish women, survivors of the Magdalene Laundries now living in the United States, will not receive the health care coverage recommended in Justice John Quirke's 2013 Magdalene Commission Report.
Contrary to Justice Quirk's recommendation that all Magdalene survivors be afforded a medical card or equivalent health coverage, the Irish government announced this week that health benefits will only be given to survivors currently living in Ireland.
It's believed the decision to restrict health care coverage will impact differently depending on where the women now live. Survivors in Britain – where over 100 have applied to the scheme – may already be well served by the UK's national health service.
“But it's a very different prospect for women living here in the United States,” says James M. Smith, an associate professor at the English department and Irish studies program at Boston College and longtime campaigner on behalf of Magdalene survivors.
Smith, the author of 'Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment,' gave an example of one Magdalene Laundry woman.
He was first contacted by the 79-year-old Magdalene survivor after she read his book in 2008.
“This is a women who at 79 years of age relies on charity. A family who knew her in Boston in the 1970's moved her to the midwest. They pay her rent and have helped her with her health insurance. Butt she can't afford to make up the shortfall and she doesn't want to tell them, for fear of becoming more of burden than she already is.
“What this means is that at 79 she cannot afford the $22 dollars it costs to buy her multivitamins. For her a lump sum payment is well and good, as she might be entitled to somewhere south of $50,000. But the fact is that's a weeks hospitalization here.”
Justice Quirke's report was submitted to the government in May and published on June 26. After that date Magdalene survivors could apply to the scheme for financial assistance. A lump sum payment was recommended by the report, with the sum determined by the number of years or duration of stay of each woman in a Magdalene Laundry, with payments ranging from a minimum payment of between €10,000 and €12,000 ($13,500 - $16,000) up to a maximum of €1100,000 ($150,000).
“The Irish government announced this week that nine Magdalene survivors living in the US have applied for assistance. All will be denied health coverage. The survivor here in the U.S. that I am very familiar with, and on whose behalf I've previously lobbied the government, is now in her late 70's and living with medical issues and experiencing pain on a daily basis.
“She will receive her lump sum entitlement and she will receive a statutory old age pension, as she is entitled to having worked in a Magdalene laundry for a number of years, but she will not have her health care paid for and this was something that was recommended by the Quirk report,” Smith said.
The Irish government accepted the Quirke report in full and in principle, Smith adds. “But this week the Irish Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, in response to a question from Independent Minister Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan in the Irish parliament, seems to have moved away from that commitment.”
The first recommendation in Quirke's report states that all Magdalene women should have access to the equivalent full range of services currently enjoyed by holders of the Health Amendment Act 1996 Card (HAA Card). The card entitles its holder to extensive health services equivalent to those provided to the holder of a HAA Card. It was recommended it should be given to each woman who worked in a designated Magdalene laundry.
“There is no language in Justice Quirke's report that qualifies their entitlement in terms of people living in Ireland and people living outside of Ireland,” Smith says.
But in a statement on Tuesday Shatter wrote: “In line with the recommendation of Justice Quirke these services will be provided in this state.” Shatter's response came a week after Deputy O'Sullivan called the Irish Department of Justice on Smith's behalf to make specific enquiries about the 79-year-old Irish survivor who now lives in the midwest.
“O'Sullivan was told that this woman would qualify for the lump sum payment before Christmas (once she signs a waiver that stipulates she will not attempt to sue the State). She will also receive a pension, but she will not be receiving a Health Card (HAA CARD) or its equivalent.”
Recognizing that some former Magdalene Laundry women now live in other jurisdictions including the U.S., Canada, Australia and other countries, Quirke wrote in May: “Although my terms of reference do not refer to those women, the observations I have made apply with equal force to their circumstances, their tax liabilities and the social and other benefits to which they are entitled.”
“Justice Quirke imagined all former Magdalene women were entitled to all the benefits he outlined, including health benefits. The government accepted that in principle. But in his statement this week Minister Shatter seems to want to suggest that Justice Quirk only ever envisaged those benefits being for women living in the state.”
In February the McAleese report, a government appointed investigation into State involvement in Catholic run institutions, found that the Magdalene Laundries were not private institutions outside the remit of the state, nor did the majority of women who lived and worked in the laundries enter them voluntarily. The report also found that at least 2,500 women were sent to the laundries by the State.
The McAleese report also found that the State gave laundry contracts to the Magdalene Laundries, participating in a system of forced unpaid labor, a system it actually oversaw. Two weeks after the McAleese report was filed Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered a government apology.
“That was in February,” says Smith. “It's November now and no woman has yet received her lump sum payment. Legislation has not been put in place for women to receive health their health care if they live in Ireland, or their pension entitlements. Two of these women have died since February. Not only are things not happening fast enough in terms of them getting their money, in the year of The Gathering it’s appalling that some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of the Irish Diaspora are being excluded in terms of access to health care which is being afforded to women who live in Ireland. The benefits they are entitled to they may never get the chance to enjoy.”
Smith is incredulous that the Irish government can't seem to offer health care to the nine Magdalene Laundry women it estimates are still living in the U.S.
“The Irish government needs to revisit this issue for survivors living outside of Ireland from whom health care coverage would improve their quality of life in their final years,” Smith says. “They should find a way to provide the equivalent of a medical card form of health care to the elderly women who might need it.”