FREE GP care for children under five will improve waiting times in the country's A&E departments, according to Junior Minister Brian Hayes.
He said the measure - which will cost around €40m and benefit an estimated 240,000 families - is the first step in the government's phased move towards free GP care for all.
The new measure will not cover medicines which may be prescribed for children covered by the plan.
"The government got a mandate to introduce universal healthcare and the first phase of that is the introduction of GP access right the way across our population," he said.
"So the government's view is that if we can do it, in terms of under fives, it's a good start.
"We need to take pressure away from A&E acute hospital settings and we need to put more pressure on community health care and primary health care."
A tightening of the existing income threshold for medical cards is expected to help contribute towards the cost of the new plan.
"The mandate that both parties got was universal healthcare and you can't have that unless you have access to GPs right the way across our communities," he said.
"If we can mange to do this I think it will be a very important first step along the road towards universal healthcare."