Revealed: 'Free' under-12s GP care 'will cost €5 or have a cap on visits'
Government trying to secure support of reluctant doctors
Free GP care for children between the ages of six and 12 could cost parents €5 per visit or be capped at four appointments a year, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
The Government has long promised the extension of the free GP care scheme to all children under 12.
However, it is now prepared to introduce nominal charges and appointment caps as part of an effort to appease doctors who are resisting the extension of the scheme which currently applies to all children under six.
Doctors have complained that the current free GP care scheme is clogging up their waiting rooms with young children who are not in need of medical care.
Extending the scheme to under-12s would benefit the parents of almost 200,000 children.
There are no plans to charge parents of under sixes for GP visits or introduce appointment caps, but it is hoped the proposed changes to the scheme could speed up the timeline for introducing free GP care for under-18s.
There is a commitment in the Programme for Government to introduce free GP care services for all children under 18 by the end of the current Dail term.
The Government's long-term healthcare plan set out in the Slaintecare Report proposes free GP care for the entire population which would cost an additional €91m.
The report also recommends introducing no-cost and low-cost medical service in the community.
Minister for Health Simon Harris is determined to meet commitments set out in the report but his officials are examining ways of extending the free GP care with low costs in an attempt to secure the support of doctors.
Department of Health officials are currently locked in negotiations on drafting a new GP contract and the extension of the free GP care scheme is central to these talks. Proposals on nominal fees and appointment caps have not yet been offered.
Mr Harris announced a €25m primary care fund in the Budget and it is expected that some of this funding will be used to persuade doctors to extend the free service for children.
The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has warned there will be a shortfall of more than 2,000 doctors by 2025 if the Government extends free GP care for the entire population.
In its pre-Budget submission, the IMO said there would be massive difficulties hiring new GPs in the coming years as many new doctors are emigrating due to poor salaries and conditions in Ireland. A survey of newly qualified GPs found 17pc are working abroad while many more are planning to emigrate.
The survey also found more than half of all GP trainees are undecided as to whether they will remain in Ireland while one-eighth are resolved to leave and just one-third plan on remaining to practise here.
The IMO is seeking the reversal of cuts to GP contracts introduced during the crash and new incentives to keep doctors in Ireland.
"Without a significant increase in GPs and investment in general practice services, the expansion of GP care will be impossible to implement and lead to further poor morale and burnout among GPs, and accelerated difficulties in recruiting GPs, while patients will rapidly begin to experience waiting lists for GP appointments," the IMO said.