€8,000 allowance to entice more GPs into rural areas
More medical card GPs are to be offered a rural practice allowance of €8,000 a year in a bid to ease the serious shortage of full-time family doctors in many areas of the country.
Around 19 areas are without permanent GPs - despite being offered individual panels of medical card holders, who would generate yearly capitation fees and other allowances from the HSE.
But in several cases, the income generated would not provide a viable business, particularly in more remote rural areas. This leaves patients reliant on locums or travelling several miles to see a doctor.
The HSE is to make it easier to draw down part of the rural practice allowance, worth €16,216 a year. It had been worth €20,712 before 2009 cuts.
It currently covers GPs who practise in a village with a population of lower than 500 people or where there is no town with a population of 1,500-plus within a three-mile radius.
Under the new plan, half the allowance, or about €8,000, will be offered to doctors who are practising within three to seven miles from a town. But it is unclear if it will be enough to entice doctors to areas with vacant panels for many years.
The HSE said it had reviewed the guidelines for dealing with the rural practice allowance for GPs applying for a medical card contract.
"The purpose of the new guidance is to ensure consistency, transparency and fairness in decision-making in respect of the relevant discretionary provisions of the contract pertaining to the granting or otherwise of the allowance to new applicants. The new guidance does not, however, affect existing holders of the allowance," a HSE spokeswoman said.
Although several areas were without a full-time GP, "none of these panels were unoccupied as all had locum arrangements in place".
Areas without a permanent GP in July included:
- Inis Oirr and Inis Meain in the Aran Islands. The position was vacant for more than seven-and-a-half years, although a temporary doctor was employed by the HSE. It was previously advertised and received no applications to care for the 253 medical card holders.
- Moycullen in Co Galway, which was also vacant for seven years with a long-term locum in place. It was due to be advertised with a list of 593 patients.
- Coolgreaney in Co Wexford, which was advertised four times and has been without a permanent GP for more than three-and-a-half years to cater for 405 patients.
- Kiltimagh in Co Mayo was vacant for a year, although there was a panel of 1,018 medical card holders on offer. At the time it was advertised a doctor was due to take up position there.
- Bangor Erris in Co Mayo, where interviews were held after being vacant for eight months. It attracted just one applicant for the patient panel of 516.
There were also pockets of areas in urban regions which were without a GP at that point, including a panel of 388 patients in Drogheda, which had not been filled for four years.
In Glasnevin, in Dublin city, there was a panel of 899 patients empty for six months. A full-time GP was due to take it on in July.