The health service will not be able to cope with the expansion of free GP visits, a doctor has predicted.
From today, all children under the age of eight will be able to visit the GP free of charge and soon all those who earn under €46,000 will be able to do likewise as well.
The change was announced in last year’s budget and has been described by the Department of Health as “the largest expansion in access to GP care without charges in the history of the State.”
Speaking to The Hard Shoulder, Monaghan-based GP Illona Duffy said she feels the Department has underestimated the magnitude of the change they are ushering in.
“[Officials] are suggesting there’ll be an extra 400,000 medical cards added into the system,” she said.
“That’s probably an underestimation because they’re basing that on the fact that they think that not everybody will apply for it - which is exactly what they thought about the u-6s and they were proven wrong there.
“So, we’re estimating that there’ll be at least half a million new GP Visit cards into the system.”
Dr Duffy described the health service as “already overloaded and well beyond capacity” and without a sufficient number of GPs to cope with the change.
“We saw the impact of the under six’s cards,” she said.
“Before they were introduced there was concern raised that GP practices wouldn’t be able to cope with the extra demand… Once the service becomes free, people will understandably use that service more frequently.”
People Before Profit’s Paul Murphy described Ireland as an “extreme outlier” within the EU when it comes to charging citizens for GP visits and said it would benefit the health service in the long run.
“The average family spends nearly €1,000 a year on medical expenses… It’s an enormous cost for an average family,” he said.
“For many people, as a consequence of rationing access to GP care according to wealth, many people don’t go to the doctor when they really should be going to the doctor.
“There was a study done a number of years ago, where one in five people in the South of Ireland said they had a health problem in the previous year and didn’t go to a doctor because of money.
“Whereas that figure was only 2% in the North - because access to GP care is free.”
Deputy Murphy think would end up saving the health service money in the long-term because “it’s much better to catch things early by people having [early access] to primary care.”
Free GP Visit Cards will become available for those earning under under €46,000 in the autumn.
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Main image: A GP and a patient.