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Free GP visits for all by 2015 - minister

FREE family doctors' visits for all from 2015 is part of a new Government plan, according to minister Roisin Shortall.

The Government will provide free GP care from next March for those with a range of long-term illnesses and the scheme will be extended to the whole population by 2015.

Phase one will cost an estimated €15m and the total cost of the scheme is expected to be in the region of €300m.

The aim is to ease pressure on the more costly acute hospital services by treating people before their health issues become more serious.

Primary Care Minister Ms Shortall made the announcement at the country's first primary care conference in Mitchelstown, Co Cork.

She said she was "confident" of meeting the March deadline that would see an end to GP fees for about 56,000 people.

Asked where the funding would come from, Ms Shortall insisted she was "very confident" the money would be allocated in the Budget.

Phase two in 2013 would extend free GP care to those in the High Tech drugs scheme -- a further 50,000 people.

The following year subsidised GP care would be extended to the rest of the population with free care for all by 2015.

The total cost of €300m is based on the current prices charged in private GP fees -- paid by two in three people.

Ms Shortall said the number of primary care teams needs to be increased to reach the target of them meeting 90-95pc of health needs in the community.

To do this would require an increase in the number of GPs and practice nurses.

At the moment there are fewer than 400 primary care teams despite an original target of 600 by 2011. She hopes to introduce a fast-track training programme for family doctors.

The plan was to allocate €250m for the development of primary care centres over the next five years.