Reilly plans free GP care for children under-five

Move envisaged as initial stage of phased introduction of free primary care for all

Dr James Reilly: is still promising
 the policy can be introduced within the lifetime of the 

Dr James Reilly: is still promising that the policy can be introduced within the lifetime of the current administration.


The Government plans to announce free GP care for under-fives later this year as part of a radical recasting of its central health policy.

Months after the abandonment of an election pledge to first extend free medical cover to people with long-term illnesses, Minister for Health James Reilly will unveil a remodelled strategy proposing the phased introduction of free GP care for all according to age group.

Dr Reilly is still promising the policy can be introduced within the lifetime of the administration, as pledged in the programme for Government, even though no progress has been made so far. The plan, designed to take the Government parties to the next election, will see the announcement of free GP care for under-fives after the summer and a pledge to extend this benefit to other age groups over the following two years.

Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White is working on the detail of the proposals. There is no indication yet where the €400m-450 million a year required to fund free GP care for all will come from.

The proposal has not yet been discussed in detail with the Irish Medical Organisation, whose members are certain to seek payment for any additional services provided. Dr Reilly adverted to his plan briefly during a wide-ranging speech at the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal last week, when he said his initial focus was on how to give young children access to free GP care. “I do not want any parent to be in a position where they have to decide between buying the groceries and bringing their child to the doctor,” he said.

The plan would be “another important step” along the road to universal health insurance, to be introduced fully over a five-year period after 2016. In May, The Irish Times revealed the Government was abandoning its plan to extend free GP visits to people with long-term illnesses and on the high-tech drugs scheme.

Legal hurdles
These were planned as the first two phases of the scheme but ran into legal difficulties. The Attorney General’s office advised that granting medical cards on the basis of medical needs rather than income could be open to challenge. Mr White later said the approach was too cumbersome and would have meant introducing regulations which would only be required for a few years until free GP care was extended to all.

Writing in The Irish Times earlier this year, he said it made sense for people to have easy access to their GP and have health problems identified early. “Primary care is a lot less expensive than high-tech hospital care. If illness can be avoided or managed before someone ends up in hospital, this results in a better outcome for the patient and is a more effective use of scarce resources.”

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