Coalition talks go into fourth day as over-70s GP plan agreed

Enda Kenny says he will not be rushed into deal with Joan Burton on Cabinet reshuffle

 Joan Burton: surprise move was agreed in discussions between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and new Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton about key policy priorities in the run-up to a Cabinet reshuffle.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Joan Burton: surprise move was agreed in discussions between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and new Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton about key policy priorities in the run-up to a Cabinet reshuffle. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 16:07

Up to 50,000 of the wealthiest older people in the State are set to benefit from the Government’s decision to provide free GP services for all over-70s.

The surprise move was agreed in discussions between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and new Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton about key policy priorities in the run-up to a Cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Kenny told the Fine Gael parliamentary party last night he would not be rushed into agreement with Ms Burton on the reshuffle. He said badly handled cabinet reshuffles had destabilised governments before and he was determined not to repeat mistakes.

Mr Kenny and Ms Burton met yesterday to try to finalise agreement in the hope the reshuffle can take place today but there is no guarantee that will happen.

It is understood Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has spoken to the Taoiseach urging Jimmy Deenihan be retained in the Cabinet, while a number of Labour TDs and former Labour deputy leader Barry Desmond have urged Ms Burton to retain Pat Rabbitte.

The decision on free GP services for the over-70s was due to be announced by Minister for Health James Reilly at a press conference on Tuesday, but this plan was scrapped and Mr Kenny revealed the proposal during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil yesterday.

No means test

Under the plan, all over-70s will be entitled to at least a GP visit card without a means test. But people on higher incomes, currently not eligible, will qualify for the GP visit card only and the costs of their medicines will not be covered.

The proposal is viewed by Government as the second phase of its rolling out of free GP care to the entire population, and follows a Bill to provide free visits to family doctors for all children under six.

The Government lost a vote on this legislation in the Seanad yesterday, which may delay the plan beyond the autumn.

The Government has reinstated discretionary medical cards to 15,000 people who had them removed in recent years. It plans to extend the scheme so specific medical conditions count for eligibility in addition to means.

There are 370,000 over-70s in the population but most already have cards. The spokesman estimated 50,000 would benefit from the decision yesterday. He said it wasn’t yet clear whether legislation was required.

The Government was trying to inject “the maximum level of fairness”, he said. “Over-70s visit the doctor five times a year on average, so that’s a high level of outgoings, regardless of income.”

Currently, an over-70s couple would have to be earning over €72,800 a year not to qualify for a full medical card or GP visit card.

‘Complete disarray’

The GP committee of the Irish Medical Organisation, which represents doctors, said Government policy on GP services was in “complete disarray” and there was an urgent need to tackle the crisis.

Dr Ray Walley, chairman of the committee, said: “We are particularly concerned that the Government is using free GP visit cards as an alternative to medical cards when the two are not comparable. It is of little help to an elderly patient to have his GP visit paid for but no support for all the additional services . . . medication, non-medical support services and community services.”

* This article was amended on July 10th, 2014.  It was incomplete when originally published  due to information being omitted in the editing process. Currently, over -70s are  entitled to a medical card if their gross income does not exceed €500 a week for a single person or €900 for a couple. They are entitled to a free GP visit card if the income was over €500 but less than €700 for a single person and €1,400 for a couple. Savings and investments below €36,000 for a single person and €72,000 for a couple are disregarded.