Saturday 18 November 2017

Health Minister to promise free doctor care for all under 18

Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health
Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health
John Downing

John Downing

Health Minister Leo Varadkar will today outline an ambitious plan to bring in free GP care for everyone under 18 years of age.

The minister's pledge is that, if re-elected, Fine Gael will insist upon the measure as part of the Programme for Government and implement it early in the next term of office.

The announcement will come as part of Dr Varadkar's address to the MacGill Summer School in Glenties this evening. He will set out other elements of his plans, laying emphasis on developing more community care and more preventative programmes to improve health and tackle problems such as alcohol abuse and obesity.

Dr Varadkar, who has just completed one year in the most difficult cabinet post, will also give a robust defence of his stewardship.

His public popularity remains extremely high, with a very emotive public response to his acknowledgement before the same-sex marriage referendum in May that he is gay.

But the Opposition has been re-doubling criticism of his record, with Fianna Fáil arguing that health services are now as bad as during the tenure of his predecessor, Dr James Reilly.

The party's health spokesman, Billy Kelleher, has accused Dr Varadkar of "behaving like a commentator" when speaking of the health services' problems, instead of as the minister responsible.

Officials in Dr Varadkar's department point to a number of recent successes on his watch, including finally launching free GP care for children under six earlier this month. To achieve this, he had to negotiate with the doctors' union, the IMO, and cope with strident opposition from the breakaway National Association of GPs.

They also argue that he "re-booted the process" for the National Children's Hospital, with the planning application due to be lodged with An Bord Pleanála within weeks.

Dr Varadkar also published the outline of the Public Health Alcohol Bill, billed as the most far-reaching alcohol legislation being prepared in the EU.

Other points in his favour include presiding over early access to powerful new treatments for Hepatitis C. He is also credited with securing a modest budget increase for the entire health system - the first such increase since 2008.

Fine Gael backbenchers are especially relieved that he changed the discretionary medical card system, meaning that more of these cards are now in circulation than ever before. One source estimated there are up to 82,000 discretionary cards, giving free care to people stricken with serious illness.


Political sources defending Dr Varadkar also argued that he had secured the first ever European Investment Bank funding for healthcare in Ireland, which is now providing a direct investment in primary care centres.

Nevertheless, critics of the minister will seize on the latest pledge as more nebulous promises which do not sit well with Fine Gael's election promises in February 2011 to completely re-cast the health services.

Fine Gael pledged to abolish the HSE and set up a number of integrated agencies delivering health services. A system of obligatory Universal Health Insurance was to be introduced, with the poorest people's provision taken in charge by the State.

Based on this, free care would be dispensed at the point of delivery. All of this would take two terms - but there would be a number of staging points as part of phasing in.

Next moves in putting together the health jigsaw puzzle

The Government must either concede that it is persisting with the HSE or else spell out what will replace it.

The Government must either concede that it is persisting with the HSE or else spell out what will replace it.

Developing the hospital groups and putting them into action is a good step here.

The entry point - mainly the A&E units - must be re-thought to end the perennial blockages.

Pressure on elderly care must be alleviated, with more help to people to live independently - and ideally in their own homes.

Public health programmes aimed at tackling things like obesity and other ailments related to poor diet and lack of exercise must be developed.

A realistic programme to address the serious problems of alcohol abuse and alcoholism needs to be elaborated.

The 'Dutch model', originally vaunted as the way forward, has been seriously questioned. But no replacement model of funding has been mooted. No future plans for the service can be credibly advanced without being able to spell out how it would be funded sustainably into the future.

Irish Independent

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