KEY differences in health policy between the next likely partners in government emerged last night.
The Labour Party yesterday promised GP care will be entirely free for everyone -- regardless of income -- by 2014 if it is part of the next government.
But Fine Gael is promising a much slower timetable, sparking a fresh war of words between the prospective coalition partners.
As part of Labour's new health plan unveiled yesterday, family doctors will no longer charge private fees. They will instead be paid by the Exchequer to look after the entire population.
The party estimates this will cost the next government an additional €389m to roll out.
It claims this can be funded by savings generated by lowering the State's drugs' bill, cutting staff, ending tax relief for medical expenses and slashing hospital consultants' salaries by €75m.
By 2016 the party will move to its next stage and introduce a system of compulsory universal health insurance.
This aims to end the public-private divide which allows insured people to jump the queue for hospital care.
Outlining the party's 90-page 'Fair Healthcare Plan', Labour health spokeswoman Jan O'Sullivan claimed this will be free to those on the "lowest incomes".
"It is costed, planned and timetabled and will end the two-tier system by 2016," she insisted.
Ms O'Sullivan said those on higher incomes will pay premiums according to their means, but she could not say what the higher pay brackets will be or what existing subscribers will pay under Labour's system.
Fine Gael is also promising universal health insurance, including free GP care.
But its plan -- modelled on the Dutch health system -- will take much longer to implement.
Fine Gael says it cannot introduce its proposed changes until 2016, and will take another five years after that to extend it to the whole population.
Ms O'Sullivan said there were a lot of "questions marks" over Fine Gael's policy, which she said is not costed and mostly aspirational.
But when pressed if policy differences could be a coalition 'deal breaker', Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton dodged the question.
"If we are in negotiation with Fine Gael our health policy will be very, very high on the list," she said.
"You will need to cut to the nitty gritty and I am not aware that Fine Gael has detailed proposals in the same way as Labour has."
Under Labour's health plan, GPs would be paid an annual capitation fee for each member of the public registered with their practice.
According to its document, the universal health insurance scheme would cost the State an additional €371m on top of what is currently spent on hospital care.
More specialists will be hired, extra GPs will be trained and primary care centres providing 'one-stop-shops', where GPs and other professionals provide an alternative to hospitals, will be expanded.
However, much of this hinges on the hoped-for improvement in the economy by 2016, when more people would be working and contributing to the tax base.