'It's impossible to provide a quality service', says GP refusing to treat under-6s
Some under-pressure GP practices in north Dublin are refusing to provide free care to children under the age of six because they are already struggling with over-capacity.
Only one general practice out of three in Balbriggan has signed up to the State scheme for free GP care.
Dr John Ferguson of the Bracken Clinic told the Herald that his practice simply does not have the capacity to take on the extra workload.
He also believes that other practices around the country had only signed up to it out of fear they would lose patients.
"It's a huge failure on behalf of the Government for setting up this scheme and for promoting it the way they did.
"We've always strived in the Bracken Clinic to provide a good quality service to our patients but it's now become impossible," he said.
The introduction of free GP care was a key element of the Government's overall health reforms, however it has been dogged with criticism ever since it was rolled out in July 2015.
"We weren't in a good position to sign the contract because of the increased workload that we anticipated. But instead of taking the scheme on board I decided to reduce my fees by half," Dr Ferguson said.
"The contract was really forced upon us. We had no say as GPs and no consultation or input into it. This is the reason why I had a huge problem with it.
"I know that there were plenty of other general practises who reluctantly signed the contact out of fear that they'd lose patients. I was initially worried that we were going to lose families but thankfully this was not the case," he said.
Dr Ferguson added that he will consider signing up to the under-six scheme once his practice moves to the Balbriggan Primary Care Centre in April.
"When we move we will have more resources and be more likely to sign up to the contract, under consultation with patients and staff," he added.
Fingal TD Louise O'Reilly has raised this issue in the Dail.
"[Balbriggan] has a very young population and we can expect to see a surge in the number of children under six in the next couple of years," she said.
"Parents cannot find a doctor willing to take them and, therefore, they cannot register. This is an everyday occurrence.
"Their children do not have access to the GP services that the Minister and the people who sit on that side of the House were congratulating each other on granting.
"The GPs are already overburdened. They do a fantastic job but they are only human. They are up to the limit of their capacity. We need to incentivise general practitioners to go to the areas they are needed and we must have salaried GPs if that is what is necessary.
"In the short term, we need to reimburse people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to attend and pay for GP services for children under six.
"It is utterly useless to people in Balbriggan who cannot register with their GP and who are left without these vital services," she added.
According to the latest figures from the HSE, 2,274 GPs have signed up to the under-six scheme. This represents 93pc of the 2,452 with General Medical Services contracts.
Health Minister Simon Harris recently told the Herald that he was committed to introducing free GP care for all children.
However, he said he would expand the scheme to under-12s only when he reached agreement with doctors on a new GP contract.