Doctors have expressed varying views on the decision by the Government to extend free GP care to six and seven year olds as part of a broader strategy towards providing universal health care.
The move, which will provide free GP care for about 120,000 extra children, is part of a €45 million package included in the budget which will also reduce the threshold for the Drugs Payment Scheme from €114 to €100.
Dr Bertie Daly of the High Street Medical Centre in Newmarket in north Cork acknowledged most GPs would be supportive of measures assisting families to obtain health care, but said he wasn’t convinced that the move to extend free GP care was fully thought out.
“I think most GPs would agree the universal health care system is a good idea – universal health care for children can’t but improve children’s health. But it’s like every other health initiative, it will only work if you support it appropriately and that is where we would be apprehensive,” he said.
Dr Daly said that GPs experienced a huge surge in presentations when free GP care for children under six came into force in July 2015 and there was concern that this new extension of free GP care could have a similar knock-on effect.
“We have a very good primary care system but it has been overwhelmed and any small increment in workload can have a catastrophic effect on the ability to perform – particularly on other aspects of the primary care system such as the elderly and waiting times and response times.”
Dr Mike Thompson of the Imokilly Medical Centre in Midleton in east Cork shared some of Dr Daly’s concerns about what he described as “a populist” move and stressed some practices won’t be able to cater for additional visits.
“I think most people would recognise that day time general practice and out of hours is at capacity – you can only stretch an elastic so far .”
Dr Thompson said that while the move wasn’t a surprise he didn’t believe that extending free GP care would have the same impact as when free GP care was introduced in 2015 for the 440,000 children under six as older children typically present less often.
“I would have preferred to see free GP care being extended to more medically deserving groups – I know of people with cancers who can’t get free GP care and we are still struggling with people who may have asthma or type one diabetes – I think it was a missed opportunity in that regard.”
Dr Fiona Kelly of Bank Place Clinic in Castletownbere in west Cork shared Dr Thompson’s view that the money could have been better spent on other sectors of the health service such as recruiting more doctors into general practice.
“First of all, I think it was a bit of a political stunt – there was no prior discussion of this with GPs – we are already completely overwhelmed and there are thousands of patients around the country who are finding it really difficult to access a GP as it is,” she said.
Dr Kelly instanced a recent informal poll by the Irish College of General Practitioners of some 900 GPs and 60 per cent of them said that they were already beyond capacity and could not take on any more new patients and she predicted the situation was likely to get worse rather than better.
“It’s estimated that some 700 GPs will retire over the next five years and the planned number of training places for 2026 is only 350. So more will be leaving than entering the profession which will leave existing GPs at breaking point so we need to recruit extra doctors,” she added.