Editorial: Free healthcare scheme needs all sides onboard
Published 24/04/2014 | 02:30
WHETHER or not one is in favour of free GP care for the under-sixes, the vast majority of people would be happy if the Department of Health and the doctors' representative body, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), would just sit down and thrash this out. Guerrilla war, marked by spin and misinformation, has left most of us confused about the issues.
The argument against universal benefits such as this is that these are doled out regardless of income. A multi-millionaire has the same entitlements to avail of such benefits as those on quite low incomes. On the other hand, proponents, such as Health Minister Dr James Reilly, argue that it should be an entitlement of the modern State. This measure is part of a plan to introduce free GP care for all by 2016.
As it stands, there are over 400,000 under-sixes, with 180,000 already availing of free GP care through a parent's medical card or GP visit card. When the plan was rolled out, it was assumed by many that it would involve extending the existing GP visit card to this new cohort of 240,000 children. However, the minister and junior minister have insisted that all GPs will have to sign a new contract in order to access state funds for treating under-sixes.
To complicate matters further, even those who are currently covered by a medical card or GP visit card will not be able to go to their current GP for free unless that GP has signed the new contract. Potentially, this could cause major disruption for parents, who may have to find a new family doctor if their own GP won't sign the contract, as many of them are threatening to do. In return, doctors' bodies have accused the minister of "bully boy" tactics. "This approach suggests the Government has no interest in negotiations and is more interested in effectively coercing GPs to sign up," says the IMO.
The doctors have now asked junior minister Alex White for further clarification and warned that what is now a difficult situation could become an "impossible one". Most people will be aware that many GP practices are stretched as regards manpower and, if the IMO is correct, finances. Yet most agree that it is one of the few areas of the health service that functions reasonably well. GPs have much public support and if the Government is determined, as it seems to be, to push through the first stage of free GP care for all, it is imperative to get all parties onside.