Legislation will prevent IMO from negotiating fees with Government


COMPETITION LAW:THE IRISH Medical Organisation (IMO) will be prevented by competition law from negotiating a new fee structure for medical card holders over-70 with the Government on behalf of its members.

The Competition Authority, in a statement yesterday, said Irish and European competition laws "prohibit self-employed professionals from coming together and agreeing among themselves a fee for the service they provide where the object or effect of this agreement is to restrict competition".

It stressed that the legislation also prohibits a representative organisation like the IMO from taking a decision that has an anticompetitive effect.

Its comments came just days after Taoiseach Brian Cowen attempted to allay widespread fears about the withdrawal of the automatic entitlement to medical cards for all those over-70 by saying the Government would talk to the IMO about "changing the fee structure" of the current scheme. Under this, GPs get paid four times more for treating non-means tested medical card holders over-70 as they do for treating people over-70 who were in the past means tested.

But current competition legislation may delay Mr Cowen's plans to renegotiate the fees paid to GPs for treating medical card holders, as it has for the last number of years. Similar issues have stalled negotiations with the union representing pharmacists in the past.

However, the authority stressed that the Government was not prevented by competition law from "setting the fees" paid to GPs for services provided to patients over- 70 under the medical card scheme.

It said it was not prevented either from consulting with GPs and or their representative body - the IMO - on the fees to be paid for medical cards by the Government.

It is likely that there will be consultations with the IMO in the coming days on what changed fee structure might be acceptable to family doctors, but no new proposals on fees have yet been put forward. Sources said that so far, there had only been limited contact between the sides.

If proposals are put forward in the next few days, they could be considered by a meeting of the IMO GP committee scheduled to take place on Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, it is unclear why the same provisions of the Competition Act were not invoked when higher fees were negotiated by the IMO for treating non-means tested over-70s medical card holders back in 2001 when everyone over-70 was given medical cards, regardless of their income.

A spokeswoman for the authority said that the same legislation was in place then and in fact had been in place since 1991 when the authority was established.

Separately, the HSE said yesterday that it was waiting for clarification from the Department of Health before it can write to 140,000 people over-70 who are due to have their medical cards withdrawn on January 1st unless they reapply for them and do a means test.

The head of the HSE, Prof Brendan Drumm, has not yet commented on the situation. He has travelled to Australia for three weeks. A spokeswoman for the HSE said that he was on annual leave.