National is backing away from removing controls on doctors' fees, just a day after revealing it planned to axe the Government's cap on GP charges.
The party's health spokesman, Tony Ryall, said yesterday that the idea was "only a proposal", and he was open to the public's views on the subject.
National still planned to scrap Labour's fee review system but might replace it with other forms of control or monitoring, he said.
The U-turn came amid condemnation from health groups and concern from colleagues, including leader John Key, that Ryall had hijacked the launch of National's draft health policy.
Ryall yesterday phoned and texted National MPs to apologise for his performance.
At a press conference to launch the party's health discussion document on Wednesday, Ryall said National would scrap limits on what doctors could charge their patients.
"We don't think the control system that the Government has got is working. It is quite unnecessary, and competitive pressures make sure the subsequent charges of doctors are reasonable," he said.
The announcement, which was not contained in the discussion document, caught health watchdogs by surprise and prompted fears among groups for low-income patients that doctors' fees would rise.
Angry callers jammed radio talkback lines yesterday, with most critical of National's plan, and by mid-afternoon Ryall conceded that he may have to rethink the party's policy.
"I think it's clear from the changing of the debate that people are saying, 'Well, actually, yes, we would want to know that the govenrment is monitoring what's going on (with doctors' fees)," he said.
Under the Government's fee review system, GPs who opt into the new primary healthcare strategy must limit fee rises to 6 per cent a year unless they are given dispensation by a review committee because of unusual cost increases or if the viability of their practice is at risk.
Just 63 of the country's 1100 general practices have applied for a review, of which 53 were approved, mostly in the South Island.
Key said this week that market competition and the honesty of GPs would keep prices down once National removed Labour's fee system.
"If they decide to charge a lot more, then probably someone will decide to go down the road," he said.
Ryall said yesterday that this was only a proposal.
"We had a proposal that patient pressure would be one way of keeping this under control, as well as competition and the fact that GPs do not have a history of price-gouging," he said.
"Now it may very well be that the public say, 'We understand what you're saying about a system that doesn't work'.
"But the public may come and say, 'Look, this is an important area that needs to be monitored'. And certainly we would be prepared to consider that consultation because that's what this whole process is about."
Prime Minister Helen Clark said National's about-face was "hilarious" and indicated Ryall had got "cold feet".
"He's talked himself around in a circle. The problem is he's already told the GPs that's what he wants to do," she said.
Clark said National had made a major mistake with its health policy and voters would now be asking what else the party had planned.
Ryall said he should have put the plan to scrap the fee cap in his discussion document. p>"There's no-one more disappointed at my performance in the press conference than me."
- The Press