Varadkar urges gay doctors to come out and vote 'Yes'
Several hundred of Ireland's 5,000 doctors are gay but may not be "out" in the workplace and are too afraid to speak publicly about the upcoming marriage equality referendum, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said yesterday.
The minister was speaking as he addressed the annual meeting of the Irish Medical Organisation in Kilkenny and used the opportunity to urge medics to turn out and vote 'Yes' in favour of same-sex marriage on May 22.
Mr Varadkar, who publicly declared he is gay earlier this year, said: "I want to mention one non-medical matter, the referendum on marriage equality on May 22. There are about 5,000 doctors in Ireland and by the law of averages several hundred must be gay, lesbian or bisexual."
He said many gay doctors are not "out" in their workplace, and that while medicine is not a discriminatory profession, in the back of their mind is the concern that they may be treated differently by colleagues or patients. And he said that, for reasons of professionalism, they are unlikely to raise the referendum in the workplace.
"But don't think for a second that means that the referendum result is not important to them. It is. It is not just about equality. It is also a statement of acceptance by their peers. By you. A 'No' will make things much harder for the same reasons," Mr Varadkar said.
"In my opinion, marriage is an institution that has stood the test of time precisely because it has adapted to the times - the abolition of divorce in the 1920s and its reintroduction as the right to remarry 70 years later, judicial separation, the Succession Act, the Marital Home Act, the end of the marriage bar, and the abolition of conjugal rights as a defence against marital rape all changed the legal definition of marriage - but they did not weaken it."
He added: "Marriage can only be strengthened by extending it to loving, committed couples of the same sex.
"I know that there are some among us here today who will vote 'No' out of conscience or religious conviction, I respect that. However, I am convinced that the vast majority of us here support the change. In a democracy, decisions are made by those who turn up. The turnout in referendums rarely exceeds 50pc. Please turn up on Friday, May 22 and vote 'Yes' for equality."
The Minister earlier received a standing ovation from doctors, despite telling medics at the conference that he would not work for some of the fees they are getting.
When he was told that many GPs have given up stitching patients - because they only get €7 for the service - the minister admitted he would not personally do the job for that sum.
However, he said the plan to sign up for the controversial contract offering free GP visits to under-sixes - worth €67m to GPs - is just a first step in more investment in GP care, and the austerity cuts of over €100m imposed on their State fees will be restored in the coming years.
Varadkar had spent much of the day mingling with doctors in a bid to appeal to GPs to sign up for the plan.
Most of a gathering of around 150 of the 2,500 at the meeting expressed strong reservations about the move, but conceded they are likely to be left with little choice but to sign up. It will mean that around 270,000 under-sixes whose parents currently pay around €60 for a GP visit will visit their doctor for free from early to mid-July.
Dr Niall MacNamara, a GP in Waterford, told the minister that general practice is haemorrhaging and the extra funding for the under-sixes will just "slow the blood loss".
He said bluntly: "We need to get general practice out of intensive care."
Mayo GP Dr Oliver White said the decision to end the scheme where GPs were allowed to keep some of the savings they made in drug dispensing was a major financial blow and affected jobs.
Under the proposed under-sixes scheme, GPs who sign up will get a €125 a year capitation fee per child, regardless of the number of visits. They have to do a weight and height check at age two and five years. They will get extra payments for diagnosing asthma and providing checks.
The doctors are also in line for a €100 annual fee for providing two reviews of adult diabetics who are covered by the medical card and GP visit scheme. However, doctors are worried they will not be able to cope with the extra workload.
Varadkar told the conference: "I know a lot of GPs are disgruntled after years of cutbacks... but you are doing the right thing for general practice and for patients, and history will remember you for it. This is, after all, the widest extension in eligibility in health care service since Erskine Childers brought in the first GMS contract almost half a century ago and wider than the Mother and Child Scheme before that.
"But this is just phase one. I look forward to the commencement of talks soon on the new GP contract."
The minister said this will allow for expansion of GP care without fees, including for other children.