Tuesday 16 January 2018

Families face small fee under 'free' GP care plan

Health Minister Leo Varadkar.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar.
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

HEALTH Minister Leo Varadkar is planning a small charge for every visit to the family doctor under his free GP care scheme to prevent abuse of the system and clinics being overwhelmed.

The fee has yet to be set, but would act similarly to the prescription charge, which serves as a deterrent to patients getting unneeded medicines.

It is not expected to apply to patients already on a medical card or a GP-only medical card.

The free GP scheme is being rolled out for the under sixes, followed by the over 70s. But these groups are also expected to be exempt from any fee.

From there, the Government plans to extend the scheme to primary and secondary school children. Ultimately, the entire population will be covered. But the minister has not put a timescale on everybody having free GP care.

When the scheme is rolled out completely, everyone will have State-funded access to a doctor with patient cover falling into three categories;

l medical cards;

l GP-only medical cards;

l free GP cards.

At the moment, patients with medical cards pay a €2.50 charge for medicines and other items that they get on prescription from pharmacies.

The medical card prescription charge was first introduced in 2010.

Talks are continuing with the doctors' union, the Irish Medical Organisation, about the introduction of free GP care.

Mr Varadkar's spokesman said the details had yet to be finalised on the size of the fee.

"No decision at all has been taken on this matter. Talks are continuing with the IMO.

"We want to ensure that anyone with health concerns can access GP services. We are especially aware that the under-sixes and over-70s have particular needs.

"But we do not want services to be overwhelmed and we don't want people with legitimate concerns to find that GP services are struggling to cope. That may require a very modest charge but no final decision has been taken on that matter," a spokesman said.

Ireland is unusual as three in five of the population do not have access to GP or primary care as part of the State's healthcare system.

Nominal fees have been used in other countries which provide universal GP care.

The possibility of a nominal fee was first suggested by former Junior Health Minister Alex White and others.

Meanwhile, Mr Vardakar is planning to come together with other EU countries to bulk buy medicines and reduce the cost for the taxpayer and the consumer. Drug companies would also have to tender to supply drugs to the health system.

The Health Minister will bring legislation to allow the Department of Health and HSE link up with their counterparts in other EU countries to benefit from discounts.

The minister expects the moves to reduce the costs of common prescription medicines.

Mr Varadkar's spokesman said the minister will be bringing proposals forward to Cabinet for approval.

Setting out his vision for the health service in the Irish Independent last week, Mr Varadkar committed to reducing drug prices.

"We can do more to reduce the price of medicines for patients and taxpayers," he wrote in this newspaper.

Irish Independent

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