The health budget rises to a record €17.4 billion thanks to the provision of an additional €1 billion in funding from Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.
The extra 6.3 per cent in funding is being provided despite the fact that health has yet again overspent its existing budget.
Far from chiding the sector for its cost overrun, Mr Donohoe claimed this year marks a “turning point” in budgetary control because the health overspend is less than half of the previous year’s. This is turn will necessitate a supplementary estimate less than half the size of last year’s - probably about €300 million.
The provision of an additional €25 million to the National Purchase Treatment Fund brings its allocation to €100 million; this money will be used to try to make further inroads into inpatient waiting lists and to reverse the continuing rise in outpatient waiting lists.
One of the most striking elements in the minister’s speech were probably the - expected - announcement of the extension of free GP care to under-8s and the introduction of free dental care for under-6s.
The extension of free GP care from the present age limit of under-6s is being postponed by a few months, to September 2020, but is still likely to feature prominently in Fine Gael’s election literature when the State goes to the polls over the next year.
The planned provision of free GP and dental care for large numbers of children will first have to be negotiated - at a price - with doctors' and dentists' representatives. The Irish Medical Organisation was quick to point this fact out on Tuesday, while the Irish Dental Association expressed "serious concern" about the Government's plans.
Extra therapists and nurses
Aside from the announcement of an additional 1 million home help hours, Mr Donohoe said he was providing up to €32 million to Slaintecare to fund new investment and redesign service delivery. This will lead to the employment of an additional 1,000 therapists, nurses and other health professionals, he said.
For the second year in a row, the prescription charge payable by medical card holders aged over 70 is being cut incrementally by 50 cents. This age-group will also benefit from an easing of the threshold for qualifying for a medical card. The €50 a week change for a single person, and €150 for a couple, is predicted to benefit an additional 56,000 over-70s.
The monthly threshold for the drug payment scheme is being reduced by €10 per month, meaning no person or family should have to pay more than €114 per month for drugs and medical appliances.
There was no mention in the minister’s speech of a Vat increase for vitamins and food supplements. The Revenue Commissioners had planned to increase the rate from zero to 23 per cent last March but was forced to postpone it to November under pressure from the industry and Opposition politicians. The matter is likely to be figure shortly in the Finance Act.