Tuesday 21 January 2020

HSE deficit threatens plan for under-fives' free GP care

Minister James Reilly
Minister James Reilly

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

THE plan to provide free GP care for children under five in the Budget is under serious threat due to the €100m-plus overrun in the health budget.

The measure has been promised by both Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore as a way of relieving some of the pressure on hard-pressed families.

But the HSE is now in danger of exceeding its budget by over €100m.

A Government source said this would make it even harder to find the €40m required to pay for the roll-out of free GP care for children under five.

"It puts it at risk," he said.

There are 350,000 children under five, but many of these already qualify for free GP care if their parents have medical cards.

There is an ongoing dispute within Government about exactly how big the HSE deficit will be. Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin told RTE's 'This Week' that the HSE's spending was on track to the end of September, so anyone projecting to the end of the year was engaging in "crystal ball gazing".

However, a senior government source said the HSE deficit was likely to be around €100m, while another reliable source put it at €200m.

And there are fears within other government departments that the problems in the health budget will reduce the scope for their cutbacks to be reduced.

Although it has been reported that the social welfare cutbacks target has been scaled down from €440m to €300m, it is understood that no final figure has yet been decided.

Fine Gael are still keeping up the pressure on Social Protection Minister Joan Burton by insisting their priority is to protect the health and education budgets – rather than social welfare.

The Cabinet is due to meet again to discuss the Budget tomorrow, with the final adjustment figure expected to be under €2.8bn rather than the original target of €3.1bn.

However, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte warned that it would still be a tough Budget.

"That doesn't mean it's going to be easier for families who have taken hardship over the last five years because of what happened to our economy back in 2008," he told RTE's 'Week in Politics'.

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