Free doctor visits might hit services, says doctor

A promise by Labour to provide those aged over 65 with free health care would have initial benefits for the elderly, but may end up impacting the services available to them, a Marlborough doctor says.

Blenheim GP Grant Johnston said free doctor visits and prescriptions for over 65s would increase GPs' workload, as when a similar policy was put in place for children under 6.

Labour leader David Cunliffe announced the policy as part of a major health package on Sunday.

"We will see more, just the same as we did with little children, we saw more mothers bringing their children to be comfortable there was nothing seriously wrong," Johnston said.

An increase in the workload would come at a price of $120 million, and the Government would restrict the treatments doctors could provide, he said.

"Because [the Government] pays the money, they say what sort of services they want and there's more government control because they are making the whole payment."

"[The elderly] are the hardest group to look after, it's not uncommon for an elderly person to have at least half a dozen illnesses."

With New Zealand's ageing population, it would take a "colossal amount" of money for the Government to fund the care.

"Where do they get the money to pay it? The difficulty is that when people are trying to get into power they make promises that they only have to worry about when they get in."

It would take years for the financial impacts to come to light as the population got increasingly older, but the policy would be good news for elderly right now, Johnston said.

"For a person who's on a fixed income, who needs to see a doctor quite frequently, this will be a huge advantage for them personally, of course."

Renwick GP Buzz Burrell was wary of the cost of the policy but believed there were ways to ensure people were not abusing the system.

The policy was a necessary one to ensure those who needed health care the most were receiving it.

But the only way for surgeries to remain viable was to charge patients, he said.

"[At the moment] people that need health care the most get it the least . . . and the stupid thing is the people who are being charged are the very people who can't afford to be charged."

Making doctors visits free for the over 65's would also ease the pressure on emergency departments, who saw a lot of elderly patients who could not afford to go to the doctor, Burrell said.

The Marlborough Express