Free GP care for all in 2026 would significantly reduce patient bills but increase wait times – ESRI report

The annual bills patients pay to GPs would fall by €372 million if the government extends free, no-means-tested GP visiting cards to everyone within three years.

However, according to a new report, the downside of such savings could be longer wait times for a doctor’s appointment.

According to the ESRI report, the annual bill patients pay to GPs could be reduced from €467 million to €95 million if an age-based approach is used.

The €95 million figure – should there be free GP care for everyone in three years – is an estimate of what people would pay if they chose not to get free GP care.

Around 56 per cent of the population is currently uninsured for free GP visits, which are unlimited for patients who are eligible for the cards.

ESRI estimates that it would cost the state between €381 million and €881 million to give everyone a GP card by 2026.

While a doctor’s appointment would be free, a shortage of doctors could mean delays before patients are seen, as around 2.3 million more doctor visits would be generated under the plan.

The report looked at Sláintecare’s promise of universal healthcare based on need rather than ability to pay.

The study, funded by the Department of Health, estimated the cost of extending free GP care over time, examining scenarios where the benefit is granted on the basis of age and a means test.

So far, however, a promise to extend free family doctor visits to six- and seven-year-olds last year has not materialized.

When this will happen, the department could not say yesterday. A spokesman said the “HSE has made preparations to extend free GP care to all children aged six and seven”.

“Working with the Irish Medical Organization (IMO), which represents general practitioners, on the required fee structures will continue to introduce this service as early as possible.”

Except for those under 6 and over 70, eligibility for a card is currently based on an income means test.

The projected cost to the state in 2026 of extending free GP care to all has been estimated to be between €462 million and €881 million using the age-based approach and between €381 million and €881 million using an income-based method .

dr Sheelah Connolly, lead author of the ESRI report said: “The Sláintecare report identified the need to move towards a universal health care system for Ireland… However, there may not be enough GPs available to provide the additional services [free GP] Visits related to the aging and growing population and an increase in the number of people entitled to free GP care in the coming years.

“If there are not enough GPs to meet the additional demand for their services, financial barriers to entry could be removed, but other barriers such as long waiting times or unavailability could impede access, thereby undermining the universality of the system.” Free GP care for all in 2026 would significantly reduce patient bills but increase wait times – ESRI report

Fry Electronics Team

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