Free GP care for under-5s mooted

Free GP care for under-5s could feature in next month’s budget, a Labour health minister has strongly signalled.

Alex White said children would be the best place to start rolling out the Government’s pledge to bring in free surgery visits for all.

The junior health minister said he was “hopeful” the Oct 15 budget would be the springboard for the long-delayed promise.

“We are hoping we can make a start — it may be a relatively modest start — in the budget. I’m working very hard to ensure that we can make a start in the budget,” Mr White said at the beginning of Labour’s one-day parliamentary party conference in Meath.

Mr White signalled that the under-5s would get priority. “Children would be a good place to start. There is a good public health reason for starting with children.”

He said he wants “to get people into the primary care system and have a system whereby parents of young children don’t have to face the obstacle of having to pay 50 quid to bring their children to the doctor”.

“I’d like to make a start in the budget, like to be able to introduce this for a section of the population.

“I would hope there would be one announcement in the budget, but the broader picture in terms of how we extend it to the broader population, we will also be talking about that,” Mr White said.

Health Minister James Reilly had promised to begin bringing in free GP care by mid-2012, and has blamed legal constraints for the delay.

Mr Reilly used a summer school speech to indicate he believed the measure should first be extended to children aged under 5.

Mr White said he had been “disappointed” by the attitude of some doctors’ groups to the free GP proposals after they complained about lack of consultation over the proposed, major healthcare reform.

“When we say free GP care it is a bit of a misnomer, because nobody imagines anything is people going to see their doctor.

“It is GP care without fees at the point of its delivery — I would be disappointed if any doctors’ group would oppose that.

“We want to remove the commercial obstacle that is there for people going to see the doctor. It acts as a disincentive,” Mr White said.

Brendan Howlin, the public expenditure and reform minister who is on the four-member Economic Management Council which decides the budget details, said discussions on the issue were ongoing.

“We have looked at how to sequentially implement the free GP care package for all and whether you start with the various categories of sickness or whether you start with age categories is something that we have been looking at,” Mr Howlin said.

Opposition parties have accused the Coalition of abandoning its key promise in the programme for government to introduce free GP care for all by 2016.

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