Q&A: How will free GP care for children under six work?

All you need to know about the Government scheme for under-sixes

The Government says free GP care for children under six will improve the health of nation

The Government says free GP care for children under six will improve the health of nation


I see the Cabinet ha s approved free GP care for children under six . So when does this become a reality?
The plan is to have the necessary legislation passed by the summer, at which point the scheme would be introduced. Before that, though, GPs will have to agree to provide the service, and talks with the Irish Medical Organisation haven’t even begun.

I pay thousands for my kids to attend third level, even though fees were abolished. So does free really mean free in this case?
“Free, full stop”, is how Minister for Health James Reilly described the plan last year. Instead of having to pay the typical consultation fee of €50-€60, parents will be able to bring their children along to the doctor for a free consultation. They’ll still have to pay for drugs, injections, minor procedures, etc but for many families, free GP care will be a big money-saver.

But won’t surgeries be inundated as nervy parents head to the doctor at the first sign of kiddy snuffles?
The evidence is contradictory. The Government is confident there won’t be a huge upswing in demand for GP services, but the IMO claims its members will be overwhelmed. One large-scale study showed children with medical cards attended the doctor only slightly more often than private patients, but another, more limited study found a significant difference in attendance by public and private patients.

And what will it mean for the rest of us if GP surgeries get busier?
The IMO has warned the service could break down, with some surgeries closing and others requiring patients to wait days for an appointment. The Government, which has allocated €37 million to fund the measure, says most children are perfectly healthy and this won’t happen.

If GPs are suffering financially, shouldn’t they be glad of the extra money?
They don’t believe enough money is being put aside to fund free care for children under six, and to resource primary care generally. They say in recent years they have been providing a range of extra services for little or no recompense, and they are fearful they will be required to care for their new patients for an annual fee as small as €70.

They are also angry at specific clauses in the draft contract requiring them to monitor the development of small children, and restricting their freedom to speak out on issues of concern.

I can afford to pay for medical care for my children, so why should I be getting this benefit?
Many doctors are appalled that sick patients are losing medical cards just as cards are to be given to healthy and wealthy children.

The Government denies it has any policy to remove cards from particular groups and says its plans, by encouraging children to attend the doctor more often, will improve the health of the population by catching problems earlier. Free GP care for children under six is only a way-station on the path to free GP care for all, it also points out.

But isn’t this just a vote-winning gimmick?
It’s true the plan will play well with middle-class voters, particularly families who have been squeezed during the economic downturn. But as mentioned above, there are sound medical reasons for encouraging children to see the doctor early in life.

Ultimately, it comes down to money. The plan will become a reality if the Government stumps up enough cash to meet the needs of the GPs who will provide the care.