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However, GPs at the meeting expressed major frustration at the delays on a new contract and FEMPI reversal, with no confirmation that restoration of fees would be unconditional.
Minister Harris acknowledged that “GPs suffered a lot during the recession”.
Speaking to journalists, he said “many cuts” were made to general practice funding by successive governments “during the financial emergency”. He said “now, as we move as a country to a better economic climate, it is important to try to help general practice”.
Minister Harris said talks would commence within a month and he wanted to “move to a post-FEMPI era”.
“I want to engage with GPs. I want new services they can also provide within the community to help reform our health services, and yes, there will be significant resources available and my message to general practice tonight is, this is the moment you have been waiting for.”
Simon Harris, Minister for Health
This would be subject to reaching an agreement on a new contract through “intensive” talks with the IMO and other stakeholders, the Minister added.
There was also anger among GPs at claims in a Department of Health briefing document that FEMPI cuts to general practice amounted to 24 per cent, compared to the 38 per cent figure quoted widely by GP representative bodies.
Minister Harris said he was “not here to get into a row over the IMO figures and percentages”. He said it was “not under dispute” that general practice had “suffered over the years of recession”.
“We now as a Government have significant extra millions of euro that we want to spend in general practice and I want to engage with GPs on how to make this a reality, and that will happen within a month.”
The Minister would not clarify whether the unwinding of FEMPI would be conditional on “service improvement”, as suggested by Minister of State at the Department of Health Jim Daly at the NAGP AGM last month. Minister Harris told journalists he wanted “holistic” talks and stressed that new services would be resourced.
Minister Harris also insisted to the Medical Independent (MI) that the forthcoming talks would result in real progress on a new contract “within months”. He had briefed Government in late March and now had legislative powers to set fees.
“What is different now is that these are talks that are mandated by the Government, these are talks that I have been liaising very closely with the Department of [Public] Expenditure and Reform on, and they are talks backed-up by resources. Obviously, I am not going to put the figure in the public domain because that is the purpose of negotiation, but what I can say is, we are talking about wanting to spend many, many millions more in general practice over the coming years.”
Responding to questions from MI about the further expansion of free care to under-12s, as contained in the Programme for Partnership Government, Minister Harris said he would “like to see the extension of access to GP care provided”.
However, he was “also conscious that I have both the Programme for Government commitments and the Sláintecare programme as well, which talks about expanding access, and I’d like to talk in the negotiation structure about how best that can happen”.
According to Minister Harris, he had said “many times” that “the cost of going to the doctor is a factor that many parents reflect on heavily when they have a sick child”.
However, he said he wanted to make progress in a “sustainable manner”.
“Ministers for Health in the past have just wanted to talk to GPs about one issue… I want to talk about a range of issues. I want to talk about the current level of fees. I want to talk about future services. I want to talk about how we make Sláintecare reform a reality. I want to take a multi-annual approach to this. I suppose I am in a position that many of my predecessors weren’t — that we do now have resources to make this possible if we have willing partners, and I believe we do.”