Free GP care to be extended from August

Over the coming weeks free GP care will extended to all six and seven year olds in the country as well as those earning under the median household income.

After a string of delays, an extension to free GP care will start being rolled out from next month. 

Originally announced in the 2023 Budget last September, the bill promises to provide free GP care to more children and disadvantaged people. 

So who qualifies? And what could it mean for you?

But first...

What is a GP (visit) card?

A GP visit card allows you to visit your doctor for free as long as they participate in the scheme. 

Blood tests to diagnose or monitor a condition are also covered. But you will have to pay for prescribed medicines, A&E visits (unless you have a doctor’s referral), dental care and other services. 

A GP card differs to a medical card. A full medical card comes with more stringent application criteria and means testing, but allows you free access to GPs, most prescriptions, dental services and more. 

Who is free GP care currently available to?

The following people qualify for free GP care regardless of income or circumstances:

Those earning below a certain wage can also qualify. 

Who is the scheme being extended to? 

Free GP care will be extended to all six and seven year olds in the State, starting from 11th August. This will increase the number of people eligible for free care by around 78,000, and take financial pressure off many hard-pressed parents around the country. 

The second group of people who will qualify for free GP visits are those whose earnings are under the median income, and will be introduced in two phases, beginning on September 11th. 

In the first phase, the weekly income threshold to qualify for free GP care will increase to €361 for a single person, and €524 for a couple. In the second phase, due to begin on November 13th, this threshold will increase to €418 for a single person, and €607 for a couple. The limits refer to your net income after you have paid income tax, USC and PRSI.

If you have children or dependents in third-level education, the threshold is slightly higher. And certain expenses that you have can also be taken into account meaning the limit for most people will be even higher. 

Following this second phase, free GP care will have been extended to nearly half a million more people. This means over half the population will be eligible for free GP care through having a GP visit card or a medical card.

It's estimated that the cost of the measures will be around €130 million a year.

Where to apply for a GP visit card

You can apply for a card online through the HSE website. 

You will need to declare your income and outgoings during the application process. In all instances you’ll first be assessed to see if you’re eligible for a medical card, 

You can also talk to your local health office or lo-call 0818 22 44 78 for more information.

What does this mean for the health service?

The health service in Ireland, like many the world over, currently faces a myriad of challenges that all impact on the provision of GP care.

Chiefly, overcrowding in hospitals has been a major issue for the past few years, exacerbated by the unique challenges presented by Covid-19. 

This directly impacts the availability of GPs, who are often required to work out-of-hours in emergency departments.

Also, many GPs cite increased work loads, long hours, stress and bureaucracy as major challenges of the job. Some retire early and many who retire are not being replaced quickly enough. 

As a result, some argue that extending free GP care while not improving GP services or increasing the number of trained doctors will just lead to problems and longer wait times for patients. 

It is for these reasons that the bill to extend free GP care was delayed for so long, as health professionals and doctors unions were concerned that it would add to existing pressures and services. 

To prevent further strain on GPs, plans to extend free care beyond what has already been announced have been paused for the remainder of the Government’s current term. 

As part of the bill, additional resources will be allocated to the health system to aid in the recruitment of more GPs.

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