Patients warned of long waits to see doctor under free care plans
Patients will have to endure waiting lists of several days to see their GPs if plans to extend free visits to the entire population go ahead, doctors warned,
GPs said surgeries would face meltdown as they struggled to cope with the influx of patients.
The warning delivers a setback to the proposals set out in the Slaintecare report, which proposes phasing in universal free GP care over five years, at a cost of €455m.
It recently emerged one in three people has avoided going to the GP at some point because of cost with an average visit at around €60.
The all-party Sláintecare report, which is the blueprint for the future of the health service, was published in May.
It is due to be the subject of a draft implementation plan before the end of the year.
But Dr Padraig McGarry, GP spokesman for the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), said that family doctors, who are already in the middle of a workforce crisis, would not be able to cope with giving free visits to 500,000 a year.
The knock-on effect is that "this will lead to waiting lists in general practice as demand will outstrip supply."
"There is no point in removing one barrier to access in cost if we only create another in time," he told the Oireachtas health committee.
Free GP care was given to the under-sixes and over-70s in 2015 - but its extension to other groups has stalled.
The IMO, the Irish College of General Practitioners and the National Association of General Practitioners united yesterday to spell out the pressure faced by the country's 3,700 family doctors and their 1,700 practice nurses.
Dr McGarry said there are currently 666 GPs who are over the age of 60 who will be retiring in the coming years.
Rural areas are likely to find it most difficult to recruit a GP.
By 2025 Ireland will need at least 1,380 more GPs to meet current demand.
However, if free visits are extended to the entire population this will rise to another 2,055.
At the same time, a large number of newly trained GPs head abroad, believing they will make a better living and have a higher quality of life.
The union is currently in talks with the Department of Health on a new contract setting out the type of services they would provide which would be paid for by the State.
GP Maitiú Ó Tuathail of the National Association of General Practitioners told the committee he knew of a GP working 120 hours a week, who could hardly take a day off in two years.
The president of the National Association of GPs Dr Emmet Kerwin said there needs to be an impact study carried out to assess the potential impact of extending free GP care.
Dr Brendan O'Shea of the Irish College of General Practitioners said a number of measures are needed to strengthen family doctor services including a reversal of the fee cuts imposed for State services during the recession.
The new contract also should be properly resourced and the number of GPs in training needs to be increased with an annual intake of around 250 a year.
GP access to diagnostic scans for their patients is still "most unsatisfactory," he warned.