Michael McNamara spoke to the Pat Kenny show about the concerns over rural GPs
A series of meetings have taken place across Ireland in recent weeks calling on the Government to save Rural GP services.
Last week, the Irish Medical Organisation rejected proposals on grants for rural doctors saying they weren't realistic and won't reverse the "draconian" cuts of recent years.
The problem is most acutely felt in Co Clare where a local doctor has shaken up the General Election race.
Richard Chambers has been in the banner country examining the issue and spoke to the Pat Kenny show this morning about his findings.
A lot of interest groups will say their area of concern is the number one election issue - what makes the future of rural GPs any different?
We’ve heard so much in recent months, even going back into last year, about how issues like water charges; rural crime and most recently flooding, were going to be the number one issue when people come to vote in this election.
What makes the future of General Practice different is linked to the Government's own acceptance that parts of the country aren’t yet feeling a recovery - namely rural Ireland. There is an anger in towns that have seen their post office, their garda stations, their local services close since the recession.
Data from the Irish College of GPs shows a fifth of members are over 60 - almost a third are over 55.
The question arises: Who’s replacing them as they retire? That’s the breaking point.
About 20 GP positions across the country are currently vacant. The IMO says some of them have been repeatedly advertised with no success.
The Ground Zero in Co Clare is Feakle in the east of the county which lost its GP two years ago and after a number of attempts to recruit a new local doctor for the area, the HSE gave up on it. It’s no longer on the record, there is no doctor in Feakle, the nearest is in Scarriff.
These people in the village are angry about that state of affairs.
What's the response been from Clare GPs?
They’ve hit back. Two meetings under the banner of No Doctor, No Village were organised in Corofin and hundreds attended both of those gatherings, alongside TDs who bore the brunt of the anger.
At the first meeting last December, Clare’s Government TDs said they’d go back to the coalition and get a timeline for action.
They came back at the start of this month and the public wasn’t happy with the political response. They’ve decided to field their own candidate, Dr Michael Harty, to stand for the Dáil as an Independent and that’s attracted a lot of attention across the county.
I asked him about his motivations for running and, if he is elected, how he hopes as a single TD to fix the situation.
The counter argument is that GPs are well paid for their work
They would say that supports have suffered. The IMO says €160 million euro has been taken out of General Practice.
The Rural Practice Allowance, which makes up for the smaller number of patients rural doctors serve, was scaled back from over €20,000 to €16,000 at the start of the recession.
Currently, you’re entitled to that if you’re in a centre with a population under 500 and there’s not a town of 1500 or more within three miles.
Not only are the doctors ageing and moving towards retirement with no real interest from graduates in taking up their practices, their patients are ageing, the percentage of the population aged over 65 is forecast to grow from 11 per cent in 2006 to 26 per cent in 2026.
These are the people who become affected by the trolley crisis.
Dr Michael Kelleher is a GP in Lahinch. He says it’s not just that but surgeries like his have a knock-on economic impact in their villages and towns across rural Ireland.
What's the Government's response? Will this concern hit the coalition's TDs in Clare?
Well the HSE proposed increasing the number of doctors who’d qualify, opening it up to an extra 100.
Varadkar was disappointed that was rejected by the IMO and so this issue rolls on.
The only Government TD available in Clare at the weekend was Labour’s Michael McNamara - Joe Carey and Pat Breen of Fine Gael of course were at the Ard Fheis.
Deputy McNamara says areas like Feakle are served by some supports to help people access GPs in the nearest practices like Scarriff. He accepts there is anger out there about the threat to further services.
Deputy Michael McNamara’s view on the Government’s record on health speaks volumes.
He stated: “I would like to have seen a lot of things done differently… I do think that Labour Ministers did their best… I think there was a feeling that any differences should be sorted out behind closed doors. I’m not sure that that was particularly beneficial to the Government or the Labour party.
“The overall goal was perhaps not as clear as it could and should have been… the reason we don’t have homes now, how we have a homeless crisis.”
“It was all quite short term, it was almost like firefighting.”
Deputy McNamara's criticisms will attract attention. If he views the Government's record on health as a failure, why did he continue to support the coalition?
Michael McNamara thinks there have been successes; he points to social protection, to education under Ruairi Quinn and says that everything Labour has achieved in Government came off of less than 20 per cent of the vote nationally last time around so he feels it needs that perspective.
However, he says the party failed to explain what it was doing and why it was doing it throughout its stint in coalition.
What's the situation in other counties? Is this purely a problem that's blow up in Clare?
No, it’s definitely something that’s become more pronounced west of the Shannon.
In Galway itself there is a chance that another GP may enter the General Election race. Discussions have taken place about that but it remains to be seen whether that will materialise.
Take Kerry for example; the Medical Director of the SouthDoc after hours service Dr Gary Stack told The Kerryman over the weekend that nine villages could lose their doctor if incentives aren’t re-introduced. Areas thought to be under threat include Sneem, Annascaul, Cahersiveen.
On top of that, another GP has started a Dáil run; Jerry Cowley in Co Mayo, who of course previously had a seat in the Dáil as an Independent.
He has been an outspoken supporter of the No Doctor, No Village campaign and Michael Harty’s announcement in Clare could be the catalyst for more conversations, more declarations in the short time we have left before February rolls around and the campaign begins in earnest.