Free GP visits for 13,000 more Northland kids

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Free GP visits for 13,000 more Northland kids

Manaia Primary Health Organisation boss Chris Farrelly explains the implications of yesterday's Budget - including free GP visits for under 13s - to Arnika Wickham and Elysse Davis, both aged 11. Photo / John Stone

Northland primary health and child poverty experts have welcomed free doctors' visits and prescriptions for children aged under 13, with more than 13,000 Northland youngsters and their families expected to benefit from the Budget announcement.

"It's huge, absolutely huge. This is seriously good news and front page banner headline stuff.

"It's totally unexpected and will have such a huge impact on Northland and particularly our poorer families," Manaia Primary Health Organisation boss Chris Farrelly said.

In a surprise move, Finance Minister Bill English yesterday delivered a Budget that included $90 million over three years from next July to extend free doctors' visits and prescriptions to all children under 13. Previously it was limited to children under 6 and the announcement is expected to benefit about 400,000 children nationally when introduced. Mr Farrelly said the announcement was a great surprise that would directly effect more than 13,000 children aged from 6 to 13 and their families in Northland.

"We are a region that really needs this. It's something we have been lobbying for for a long time as we've seen the impact on the health of under sixes by having free GP visits and prescriptions for them," he said.

"(Since GPs for under 6s were free) we've seen already a decrease in the hospital admission rate for under 6s in Northland and a decrease in absenteeism from school through illness. I believe that it's saved lives as these are our most vulnerable children and seeing a GP early stops some of these ailments getting to life-threatening situations.

"I believe this will have a huge impact for so many more and it's part of our push to get free GP visits for all people aged under 18 in the future."

Families would also benefit, Mr Farrelly said. The cost of seeing a GP during normal hours in Northland for a child under 13 was between $10 and $27, so at an average of about $18, a family with two children in that age group could save about $180 a year, on top of prescription savings of $6 an item.

"We know that mothers prioritise healthcare.

"We know of mums being sick and taking a sick child to the doctor, but can only afford to pay for one. She'll pay for her child and not get treated herself. That then impacts on her health," he said.

"This will enhance other work we are doing to improve the health of our population, such as our healthy homes (insulation retrofitting) programme that has now done 6000 homes in the region and the food and milk in schools programmes."

Whangarei Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) spokeswoman Liz Cassidy-Nelson said the free doctors announcement was a nice surprise, but CPAG would like to see the Government come up with a comprehensive strategy to deal with child poverty in New Zealand. "This is great news, but rather than just chipping away at the edges we'd like to see a clear strategy and direction on tackling poverty. Free doctors for under 13s is great, but we want the Government to actually target poverty more closely so that outcomes are more measurable and we are clear about how we are tackling the problem," Ms Cassidy-Nelson said. CPAG is holding a post-Budget review/analysis session at the Whangarei Youth Space in Cafler Park from 12.30pm today.

Other family-friendly announcements in yesterday's Budget include: A $172 million a year extension to paid parental leave will initially take it from the current 14 to 16 weeks on April 1 next year, rising to 18 weeks 12 months later and increasing the parental tax credit for working families not on a benefit and not receiving paid parental leave from $150 a week to $200 on April 1.

However, there was little else for beneficiaries.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE