National's cheaper GP visit policy possible because of government's fiscal management, Health Minister Coleman says

By Alex Tarrant

It hasn’t taken long for National to roll out that old chestnut of us only now being able to help low income people with certain living costs because of sound fiscal management over the past nine years.

The government’s announcement of cheaper GP visits for low income earners is something it has wanted to do for a long time, although Ministers first had to wait for the “dividends of growth” to come through, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says.

Coleman and Prime Minister Bill English on Monday announced an $18 cap for GP visits for people with community services cards, and broadened the eligibility criteria for those cards to all people on government accommodation support, including the Accommodation Supplement.

The announcement, coupled with a previous pledge for free GP visits for under 13s, will mean that from 1 July next year, over half the population – 2.5 million – will be eligible for either free or $18 GP visits. The policy is estimated to cost $380 million over four years, to be paid for out of the government’s Budget 2018 operating allowance.

Coleman told media that while community services cards were being underutilised, they allowed for an immediate way to target subsidies at low-income people. “A very clean and efficient way of delivering the care where it’s needed.”

“[The policy] is going to make a significant difference in terms of literally the health of the population over the years to come,” he said.

I asked why the policy was needed now. Was it getting more difficult for people to access primary care?

Coleman’s response: “We’ve wanted to have a more targeted system. Some people have told us that affordability is an issue, but at the same time that’s been a bit of a mixed picture.”

He referenced the NZ Health Survey as showing the number of people talking about prescriptions as a cost factor had dropped over time. “But there are other people saying that in any given year they’ve got to take into consideration the cost of going to a doctor. And for 600,000 extra people, that consideration has now dropped way, way down.”

I put to Coleman that the government had raised Accommodation Supplement payments in Budget 2017 and now was cutting GP visit prices. Was this an admission that basic costs had got away on some people?

“Nine years of really prudent fiscal management, knowing how to manage the economy and actually that was down to Bill’s time as Finance Minister, we are now in the position to do many of these things which we’ve wanted to over a long, long period,” he replied.

“So we’ve got some real options. And those dividends of growth are going back first of all to the most needy New Zealanders, in the case of health, which is 600,000 extra low-income New Zealanders getting these very cheap consultations.”

Could these costs keep falling if the economy keeps getting better then? “This is a significant announcement today. I’d just enjoy this one.”

See the announcement from Coleman below:

An additional 600,000 lower income New Zealanders will have access to $18 doctor visits under National, as one of the dividends of a strong and growing economy, Health Spokesperson Jonathan Coleman says.

National will also expand access to the Community Services Card to an additional 350,000 New Zealanders with low incomes and high housing costs, to ensure they can access a range of cheaper health services.

“We want to support more low income New Zealanders to access the healthcare they need, when they need it,” Dr Coleman says.

“We’ve already made sure all children under 13 have free GP visits and prescriptions. Around 1.4 million New Zealanders also have the cost of visiting their GP capped at $18 through the Very Low Cost Access scheme.

“National will build on this by introducing an $18 cap on GP visits for all Community Services Card holders.

“National will make it easier for 600,000 low-income New Zealanders to visit their GP before a condition deteriorates. This in turn will help further reduce the numbers turning up at busy emergency departments with issues a GP could have resolved.

“This change means a family of three earning up to $60,000 per year will be able to access $18 GP visits – with children under 13 still able to go for free.

“As part of this policy, National will also expand the coverage of the Community Services Card to include everyone receiving an Income Related Rent Subsidy or Accommodation Supplement.

“As well as getting access to cheap GP visits, 350,000 more New Zealanders with lower incomes and high housing costs will receive cheap prescriptions, free emergency dental care and free glasses for children through their new Community Service Cards.

“These changes will increase the total number of New Zealanders who can access either free or very cheap GP visits to 2.5 million, at a cost of $380 million over four years. The cost will be met from the 2018 Budget operating allowance.

“Our intention is to roll the policy out from 1 July 2018.

“Today’s announcement shows the benefits we can deliver through a growing economy and National’s commitment to help New Zealanders get ahead,” Dr Coleman says.