Lynch casts doubt on free GP care policy
Minister says promise in Programme for Govenment unlikely to be achieved
Kathleen Lynch: said she did not believe free GP care would be made available beyond under-fives in the lifetime of the Government but that if the Government were re-elected it would be implemented in a second term. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
A Labour Minister has admitted that a key policy promise in the Programme for Government, the introduction of free GP care for all by 2016, is now unlikely to be achieved.
Minister of State at the Department of Health Kathleen Lynch said she didn’t believe free GP care would be made available beyond under-fives in the lifetime of the Government, but that if the Government were re-elected, it would be implemented in a second term.
Her admission was immediately contradicted by the other Labour Minister of State at the department, Alex White, who has responsibility for primary care.
He said the commitment was to implement free GP care for all “during this Government’s term of office”. This promise had been repeated by the Taoiseach and other Ministers on numerous occasions, he pointed out.
Speaking on This Week on RTÉ Radio yesterday, Ms Lynch was asked whether it was unfair to extend free GP care to all under-5s, regardless of means, when needy older people were being deprived of benefits.
She replied that free GP care for under-5s was a good idea: “I would hope that in the lifetime of this Government and maybe if we’re re-elected, the next time round we will be able to extend that because access to a GP is the best way to operate your health service”.
Asked later by The Irish Times to clarify her remark, Ms Lynch said the Government was “hoping” to extend free GP care beyond the under-5s “but I wouldn’t be certain it will happen in this term”.
The Programme for Government states: “Universal Primary Care will remove fees for GP care and will be introduced within this Government’s term of office”.
The document commits the Government to introducing the policy in phases so that additional doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals can be recruited.
The programme originally envisaged that in the first year of Government access to primary care without fees would first be extended to people on the long-term illness scheme.
Target not achieved
However, this target was not achieved and it later emerged there were legal difficulties with the allocation of resources on the basis of medical needs rather than means. Mr White was charged with coming up with a new way of implementing the overall policy and proposed the plan to start extending free GP care by age category, starting with young children.
Minister for Health James Reilly announced details of the measure on budget day, when he said 240,000 children would benefit at a cost of €37 million a year. The plan requires primary legislation so it is unlikely that free GP care for under-5s will be introduced by late next year at the earliest.