Saturday 24 March 2018

Free GP care for under-sixes put back ‘until autumn’

Alex White confirms summer promise will not be met

Alex White
Alex White

Eilish O’Regan, Health Correspondent

THE introduction of free GP care for the under-sixes will not happen this summer as promised and instead will be introduced in the “autumn”, Junior Health Minister Alex White revealed today.

Mr White was moving the Bill to give effect to the measure which will give free GP visits to another 240,000 children at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

It will mean that all children aged five and under,  will get the free GP care, regardless of their parents’ income - with €37 million set aside to fund it this year.

However, Opposition TDs on the committee questioned the timing of the move.

The announcement comes in the wake of the discretionary medical card controversy, and cuts in other areas of the health service.

However, Mr White said it is a “first step” in rolling out free GP care to the entire population, as promised by the government.

He said the key features of the Bill are:

  • It provides an entitlement for all children aged five years and younger to a GP service without fees.
  • It removes the need for children aged five years and younger to have a medical card or GP visit card under the GMS scheme to qualify for a GP service.
  • It will also remove the need for many families with children aged five years and younger to be forced into the situation where they need to consider if their child is “sick enough” to justify paying for a visit to the GP.
  • It provides that the HSE may enter a contract with GPs for the provision of this GP service to children and provides that the Minister may set the rates of fees payable to GPs for this service.

“The Government is committed to introducing, on a phased basis, a universal GP service without fees for the entire population, as set out in the Programme for Government and the Future Health strategy framework."

"At present, just over 40% of the population can access a publicly funded GP service," Mr White said.

“The balance of the population, almost two and a half million people, must pay the ‘market rate’ for a GP consultation, which is currently in the region of €55 per visit. There are a number of consequences of this situation,” he added.

The cost deters some necessary medical care because it is generally recognised as unreasonable to expect an individual to make a good decision on what is necessary and what is unnecessary care, Mr White said.

When this first phase is in place, approximately one-half of the population will be covered by a GP service without fees at the point of use, he said.

“As announced in the Budget, the Government has decided to commence the roll-out of a universal GP service for the entire population by providing all children under 6 years with access to a GP service without fees."

"However, it is important to be clear that children aged under 6 will continue to qualify for medical cards and their entitlements to other health services, such as prescription drugs, will not be affected in any way.

“As recently as Tuesday, the Minister for Health confirmed that the Government is committed to implementing its agreed policy. Additional earmarked funding of €37m was provided in Budget 2014 to fund this first phase. It is not funded on foot of savings implemented elsewhere in the health system. The Government also announced earlier this week that an additional €13m will be provided to the HSE to meet the cost of re-instating discretionary medical cards. “

He told the committee:”The 2013 Report of the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy recommended providing access to GP care without fees to all children in this age group. There are good reasons to provide universal access to GP care in view of the health needs of the under-6’s age cohort.

“The early identification of health issues at a younger age can mitigate or reduce the impact of ill-health later in life. We should bear this in mind when the Growing Up in Ireland survey has reported that almost 1 in 4 children in Ireland are either over-weight or obese, which is likely to lead to significant health issues later in life."

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