Government plans to reduce the number of patients waiting for an appointment with a consultant are 65,000 behind the target for this year, according to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
Speaking at a post-budget briefing on Wednesday, he said priority would be given to overtime and increases in capacity so that the waiting list target can be met.
Patients earning less than the median income of €46,000 will be eligible for a free GP visit card under the headline budgetary proposal in health, he said.
This threshold is net household income and is adjusted according to family size. The Government plans to make 430,000 people eligible for free GP care from next April, though this is subject to agreement with the Irish Medical Organisation.
Asked about criticism by doctors of the plan, the Minister said: “Sometimes if you wait for the perfect and for everyone to be satisfied, the right thing takes too long to happen.”
While he understood the nervousness of GPs about the proposal, “ultimately, Government has to decide whether it’s time to do what needs to be done”.
More patients attending GP surgeries should be seen by practice nurses, he suggested, as some did not need to see a doctor.
Ireland needs about 2,000 additional consultants, Mr Donnelly told reporters. He said he would like to see a new public-only consultant contract agreed with doctors’ representatives “in the coming weeks”. A lot of issues have been ironed out in the long-running negotiations, he added, but some issues remain to be resolved.
The inpatient waiting list is trending downwards, he said, though there has been a slight increase this month. The health service is 2,800 patients behind the target of reducing the number by 17 per cent this year.
The reduction of scoliosis waiting lists was going “very well” and there have been “fantastic results” in reducing the number of long-waiting gynaecology patients in Dublin and Letterkenny, he said.
Mr Donnelly said €10 million is being provided to fund IVF services for the first time from September 2023. The full-year cost is €30 million. Decisions on how it will work and the qualifying criteria have yet to be made.
The service will be phased in over a number of years, so initially women will be funded to access private IVF care.
Budget 2023 also contained proposals to extend free contraception to women aged 16-30. Mr Donnelly said he was waiting on legal advice on the proposal to provide contraception to 16 year olds.
The age of sexual consent is 17, but the Minister said contraception should be provided to 16 year olds on the basis that the medical age of consent is 16 and the State is already providing terminations to 16 year olds.
Free oral healthcare is to be introduced for children aged up to 7 years, under a €5 million initiative in the budget.
There is also provision for €1 million to cover the cost of the morning sickness drug Cariban.
Stroke, neurorehabilitation, obesity and diabetes services will also benefit from specific measures funded in the budget.