GPs' private patients benefit from relaxed medical card rules
PRIVATE patients are enjoying more competition among family doctors, as relaxed rules on medical cards allow more GPs to open surgeries.
New figures obtained by the Irish Independent show an estimated 100 GPs have set up new or expanded practices in the past year and around 30 more are waiting for clearance.
The increase follows long-awaited legislation that came into force last year, removing "closed shop" restrictions that prevented hundreds of GPs from joining the State's medical card scheme.
And as competition increased, GPs have lowered their prices and are offering special packages– although a basic consultation can still cost between €40 and €70.
A GP receives a guaranteed annual fee from the State for each medical card patient.
The Competition Authority (CA) first called for an opening up of the medical card scheme in 2009 but it took pressure from the troika to eventually force the issue.
A CA spokeswoman told the Irish Independent: "The move appears to be having a very positive impact. There is also a very good regional spread of GPs taking up the scheme, meaning fears that there would be concentrated pockets in attractive areas were unfounded.
"We are seeing evidence of doctors advertising their services and prices now.
"There appears to be greater moves in terms of innovation in relation to pricing among GPs, which is also a very positive change. We are seeing new pricing structures, for example family pricing fees and annual fees allowing unlimited GP visits."
Rising unemployment has meant that many GPs have seen a growing number of patients go from paying private fees to becoming medical card holders, with all their care paid for by the HSE.