The Government has announced a new dedicated women’s health package as part of Budget 2022, which will see free contraception provided to women aged between 17 and 25.
The measures form part of a health spending package valued at €20.38 billion announced this afternoon.
Other key measures announced include an extension of the free GP care scheme for children aged six and seven with the intention to extend this to cover all children up to the of age 12, a lowering of the Drugs Payment Scheme to €100, expanding dental access to medical card patients and €30 million to allow patients greater access to high-tech drugs.
Also announced was €250 million to tackle hospital waiting lists.
The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU), which represents over 1,900 community pharmacies across the country, has welcomed the introduction of a free contraception scheme.
IPU President and Cork community pharmacist, Dermot Twomey said:“Pharmacies have campaigned for the introduction of free contraception for many years. We welcome that this will now commence, initially providing access to women aged 17 to 25. However, it is essential that this service is available directly from pharmacies and without a requirement for prescriptions. Enhancing access in this way would improve uptake and eliminate GP visits that there is no clinical need for.”
The IPU also welcomed the changes to the Drug Payment Scheme, reducing the maximum monthly amount any family will have to pay in medication costs to €100.
“This will deliver a meaningful change, reducing the annual costs of medication bills by €168. The IPU continue to call for the elimination of the Prescription Levy for medical card patients which acts as a barrier to some of the most vulnerable members of our society accessing medication," he said.
The IPU said it believed however that the Government has missed an opportunity by failing to commit to further expanded pharmacy services including a pharmacy-based Minor Ailments Scheme.
“While the Government is to be commended for continuing to commit to healthcare spending, it is lamentable the this remains too focussed on the acute hospital system. The IPU has consistently called for the introduction of a Minor Ailment Scheme which has proven to work extremely well in a number of other countries. At a time when free GP care to children is being extended, adding further to their waiting lists, this scheme has the has potential to dramatically reduce the number of unnecessary GP visits while also improving patients’ access to healthcare.”
Meanwhile, while the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) acknowledged the additional funding in health announced in Budget 2022, it warned that it will not be enough to tackle the enormous challenges in the service.
President of the IMO, Dr Ina Kelly, said that a capacity crisis was now endemic across health services.
“We keep loading more demand on fewer healthcare professionals. We are losing GPs, losing consultants and losing young, newly-trained doctors yet Government is not tackling the underlying problem of too few doctors and too little capacity. We are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic and the recent cyberattack but even before these shocking events our health service was not resourced to meet patient needs and incapable of providing timely access to care.
“Patients and the medical profession need to see tangible and sustainable solutions. In our view now is the time to be bold, face up to the challenges and not continue to paper over the cracks. The additional and unexpected resources available to Government could have been used to invest in the health of our nation.”
Dr Denis McCauley, Chair of the GP Committee, voiced some concern over available in capacity in GP services.
“What was needed in this Budget was supports to increase the capacity in General Practice to allow it to deliver a greater range of services in the community and attract more GPs. Instead Government have once again put the cart before the horse and announced an extension of so called “Free GP Care” on an already overburdened service. This move, while popular with politicians, will inevitably add to waiting times.
“The vast majority of General Practice is working well over 100% capacity in an effort to meet patient need and many GPs have been unable to take any leave during the past 18 months due to a combination of locum shortages and increased workload. In our view there are many areas of care that require more urgent funding such as extension of the very successful Chronic Disease Programme, a dedicated Women’s Health Programme in General Practice to deal with all aspects of sexual and reproductive health and a Mental Health Programme in General Practice. These are the priorities that will make a real difference to patients and improve overall health outcomes.
“It will be critical, in the context of negotiations with the IMO on this policy move, that there are supports agreed to improve capacity within the service and in particular assist younger GPs in establishing. Government must help us meet the increased demand by investing in measures that will increase capacity and enable practices to take on more doctors as well as support staff."