Labour's health plan cost queried

A battle has erupted over the affordability of taxpayers funding GP care for the elderly after Labour pledged to make their doctors visits free.

With the over 65s paying on average $31 a visit, Labour is hoping to match the huge success of the existing scheme for children by extending it to the over 65s.

But National is labelling the pledge unaffordable and says the elderly are not the group most in need.

Labour and NZ First charged out of the blocks at their election campaign launches yesterday with promises totaling more than $300 million.

The elderly and the very young were the big winners - with Labour making a grab for the pensioner vote with its promise to roll out free doctors visits and prescriptions to over 65s, while NZ First promised to enroll all newborn babies in KiwiSaver with a $1000 kick start that could be put toward their tertiary education.

Children up to 13 and pregnant women, who are currently entitled to free primary health care in relation to their pregnancy but not other medical needs, will also get free GP visits and prescriptions at a cost of $20m under Labour’s plan, and expectant mothers will get free dental care.

Labour’s promise builds on National’s earlier announcement in May that it was extending the free doctors visits to children under 13.

But National yesterday drew the line at doing the same for the elderly and said Labour’s promise was “desperate electioneering”.

It also claimed that Labour had underestimated the cost of extending the scheme to over 65s, who pay on average $31 a visit  to see their GP.

Outgoing health minister Tony Ryall said Labour had not allowed for the extra demand that would result if doctors visits were made free.

“If anything is free people use it more. Free coca cola? People will drink it.”

Surveys had also shown that of all age groups, the over 65s were not the most in need of free doctors visits.

The NZ Health survey showed that only 6 per cent of over 65s had reported they did not go to the GP because they were deterred by cost, compared with a national average of 15 per cent.

“If it is all about targeting unmet need this is the one group that seems to have the lowest unmet need.”

Labour’s pledge would extend free doctors visits and prescriptions to 1.7 million people - 40 per cent of the population.

Announcing the policy, Cunliffe said the September 20 electoin was about a choice between prosperity for all or only for a few.

The over 65s component of the policy will cost $120m a year, while other measures including extended care for pregnant women would take the total cost to $280 miillion.

At his campaign launch in suburban Auckland, Winston Peters told around 300 party faithful that NZ First would extend KiwiSaver to newborn babies with a $1000 kick start from the state. Under the policy parents would be able to use their funds in the scheme to pay tertiary education fees of their children.

Peters said the plan would, over time, reduce the burden of student debt both on the Government and students.

"We've got to free ourselves from foreign money and anything we can do to get ourselves into a savings culture, the better," Peters said afterwards.

Peters' speech said the party would campaign for "economic nationalism" and he focused on the issue of sale of land to foreigners and the proportion of the economy owned by Australian companies.

The party would also "ban" illegal gangs, with Peters pointing to crackdowns by four Australian states, mocking measures announced by the Government last week as "a few more sniffer dogs" at airports.

"They [gangs] have shifted into the serious industry of drugs. They are aligned with Asian suppliers and they're also into serious people trafficking and prostitution and we need to stop them in their tracks."

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