White tells IMO that GP fees unlikely to be cut further

Minister defends free GP care plan, says visit to doctor should not pose financial dilemma

 Minister of State for Primary Care Alex White was greeted with silence as he entered a meeting of IMO members in Maynooth today, where he defended plans to give free GP care to children aged under-6,  and there was no applause when he concluded. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Minister of State for Primary Care Alex White was greeted with silence as he entered a meeting of IMO members in Maynooth today, where he defended plans to give free GP care to children aged under-6, and there was no applause when he concluded. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 00:01

The Government does not intend to introduce further cuts to the professional fees for general practitioners barring any unforeseen events, Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White has said.

Addressing a special meeting of GPs at the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) conference in Maynooth today, Mr White said the department would be taking steps to seek additional resources for primary care and general practice in the forthcoming estimates process for next year’s budget.

He strongly defended the Government’s plans for the introduction of free GP care for children aged under-6 which has been roundly criticised by the IMO.

Mr White said that a decision to see a doctor should never present a financial dilemma for anyone.

He rejected suggestions that the Bill, which he published in recent days to give effect to the free GP care initiative, could be used as a proxy in the future for financial emergency legislation under which the Government has cut fees and allowances paid to GPs over recent years.

Mr White urged the IMO to take part in what would amount to “talks about talks” in relation to the plans for free general practitioner services for children aged under-6.

He said there were many issues relating to a proposed contract for the new service which could be negotiated with the IMO but that the ultimately setting of the fees to be paid had to remain a matter for the Minister.

There was strong legal advice from the Attorney General that under competition law the Government could not negotiate on fee levels with GPs who are independent contractors and not employees of the HSE, he said.

Mr White said the Government had no plans to change competition law as this stemmed from an EU directive. However, he said the Government would “stretch and stretch” its room for manoeuvre.

The Minister also rejected suggestions made by doctors that general practice would be overwhelmed if fees were abolished for all young children.

He suggested the IMO and the health service could work on a joint assessment of projected visiting rates.

Mr White said some surprise had been expressed last week at the fact that all children aged under-6, including those currently covered by medical cards - would derive eligibility for free GP services under the new legislation.

“But a universal service requires that it is just that - a unitary scheme, available to all children under-6 without distinction. It would be quite wrong - and would run counter to the very objective we are seeking to achieve - if we were to maintain two categories of under-6s and frankly there was never any question of doing so.”