IT WILL be the best part of another year before parents can avail of free GP care for their children aged five and under.
Health Minister James Reilly confirmed that the Budget measure, which will cost around €37m, must be underpinned by legislation – and this is unlikely to be passed until mid-2014.
"I believe that this measure will benefit families and their 240,000 children aged five and under during these economically challenging times," he said.
He faces criticism that it will mean the children of well-off families get free care, while many other vulnerable people are left without a medical card.
He said if it was done in isolation, this debate would have some credibility, but free GP care for the under fives "is a first step towards free GP care for all".
He added: "I know the reality for families, how finding the fees can be a real barrier. Even at the age of three, a person's health in their thirties can be pre-determined."
And he promised that free GP care "will be extended to all by 2016".
Junior health minister Alex White, who has responsibility for primary care, said they had not yet spoken to doctors about the measure but would be consulting with them. He did not mention the possibility of negotiation but it will ultimately be a Department of Health and HSE decision on how much GPs are paid by way of an annual capitation fee for each child.
GPs have already given a mixed reaction to the proposals, with many saying under-fives are not a priority.
However, Barnardos welcomed the move, saying the Government was "listening to hard-pressed families and has alleviated at least some of the pressure on them".
Chief executive Fergus Finlay said: "Practical measures such as the introduction of free GP care for the under-fives will give families some breathing space in 2014."
He said: "Providing free GP access to all children under five is an excellent investment, ensuring that illnesses are diagnosed and treated earlier. It will ultimately lead to greater Exchequer savings through reduced hospitalisation and absenteeism from schools.
"It also takes huge pressure off parents who currently have been having to make the difficult choice between bringing a sick child to the doctor or paying the heating bill or having enough money to feed their family for the week," he added.
Meanwhile, junior health minister Kathleen Lynch said another €20m of ringfenced funding for mental health services next year would mean that staff on adult mental health teams as well as those catering for children and adolescents could be increased.
She said there would also be a benefit from additional funding for resource officers for suicide prevention and the implementation of national suicide prevention measures.