Varadkar promises free GP care for all under 18-year-olds if party is re-elected
HEALTH Minister Leo Varadkar has pledged to bring in free GP care for everyone under the age of 18.
If re-elected, he said Fine Gael will insist on implementing the ambitious new measure as part of the Programme for Government and implement it early in the next term of office.
Mr Varadkar will make the announcement during his address to the MacGill Summer School in Glenties this evening.
He will also set out plans to develop more community care and preventative programmes to tackle problems such as alcohol abuse and obesity.
The Dublin West TD, who has just completed one year in the most difficult cabinet post, will also give a robust defence of his stewardship.
His public popularity remains extremely high. Mr Varadkar received overwhelmingly positive support when he publicly came out as gay in the lead up to the same-sex marriage referendum in May.
But the Opposition has been critical of his record as Health Minister, with Fianna Fail arguing that health services are now as bad as during the tenure of his predecessor, James Reilly.
Fianna Fail's health spokesman, Billy Kelleher, has accused Mr Varadkar of "behaving like a commentator" when speaking of the health services' problems instead of as the minister responsible.
Officials in Mr Varadkar's department have been quick to point out a number of recent successes, including finally launching free GP care for children under six.
To achieve this, he had to negotiate with the doctors' union, the IMO, and cope with opposition from the breakaway National Association of GPs.
They also argue that he "re-booted the process" for the National Children's Hospital, with the planning application due to be lodged with An Bord Pleanala within weeks.
Mr Varadkar also published the outline of the Public Health Alcohol Bill, lauded as the most far-reaching alcohol legislation being prepared in the EU.
Other points in his favour include presiding over early access to powerful new treatments for Hepatitis C.
He is also credited with securing a modest budget increase for the entire health system - the first such increase since 2008.
Fine Gael backbenchers are especially relieved that he changed the discretionary medical card system, meaning that more of these cards are now in circulation than ever.
One source estimated there are up to 82,000 discretionary cards, giving free care to people stricken with serious illness.
Political sources defending Mr Varadkar also argued that he had secured the first ever European Investment Bank funding for healthcare in Ireland, which is now providing a direct investment in primary care centres.
Nevertheless, critics of the minister will seize on the latest pledge as more vague promises that do not sit well with Fine Gael's election promises in February 2011 to completely re-cast the health services.
Fine Gael pledged to abolish the HSE and set up a number of integrated agencies delivering health services.
A system of obligatory Universal Health Insurance was to be introduced, with the poorest people's provision taken in charge by the State. Based on this, free care would be dispensed at the point of delivery.
All of this would take two terms - but there would be a number of staging points as part of phasing-in the plan.
Registration for Mr Varadkar's under-six healthcare scheme began on June 15 amid a mire of technical glitches. The online registration was for 270,000 under-sixes whose parents currently pay private fees.
Initially, parents could not log on to the website, and only a small portion of GPs were signing up to the scheme.
However, after a slow start, more than 79,000 children have now been registered to the scheme.
Since registration began last month, more than 2,030 GPs have signed up to provide services under the new plan.
GPs will get a capitation fee from the HSE per child.