PROPOSALS to give young children free GP care, regardless of the income of the parents, are likely to be included in the Budget.
It is unclear what age group of children would benefit at first. It would be next year before the relevant legislation would be passed.
Junior Health Minister Alex White confirmed that he "intends to bring proposals to Government" later this year but also suggested plans for the first rollout of free GP care may be included in the Budget as soon as October.
Mr White, who was addressing a nursing conference in Galway, said around €30m was available to the HSE for the plan – money which had been allocated for the first phase of GP care and has yet to be spent.
There are around 350,000 children under five years in the country but a high number of these are already getting free GP care because their parents have a medical card.
The last group to get a medical card regardless of income were the over-70s in 2005, but this benefit was abolished and is now means tested.
"At the end of July, along with Minister Reilly, I made an interim report to government on alternative approaches to introducing free GP care," Mr White said.
This followed the shelving of plans to extend the benefit first to around 56,000 on the long-term illness scheme, a move which proved to be legally complex.
"Both I and Minister Reilly have indicated our view that young children would be a good group to start with, but the issues remain under consideration in the department," he said.
If certain groups of children, outside of the medical card scheme, get free GP care their parents would still have to pay for any medications prescribed.
GPs are likely to insist on a new contract if free care is extended to any age group – and it is unclear what fee they would receive.
The Government has promised to have free GP care for all by 2016 but it is unlikely that this target will now be met.
Meanwhile, Mr White told the conference that Ireland's pensioner population would more than double in the next 30 years and lead to "significant implications for health service delivery".
Speaking of the challenge chronic disease represents to the health service, Mr White pointed out that patients with chronic diseases utilise around 70pc of health resources.
"Due to our ageing population and lifestyle factors, chronic conditions will generally increase by around 40pc between 2007 and 2020. This trend presents huge challenges for both cost and capacity," he said.
Up to 350 delegates attended the third International Public Health Conference, which runs for two days in Galway.