Free kids' GP visits rolled out in Northland

Northland families like Cara Collins' will have one less bill to pay now healthcare for her two youngest sons is free.  On October 1, Northland became the only region in the country to roll out free general practitioner visits, after-hours consultations and prescription fees for children between 6 and 12 years old. While it will be implemented nationally next year, Northland health organisations chose to start the service early.

Ms Collins, who is a single mum with three kids, said the move will "help out heaps".

For the past four years her son Dimitrious had been sick with allergies and regularly goes to the family's GP at a cost of $25 a visit once he turned 6.

"I'm still paying off those winter doctor bills," Ms Collins said.

"It'll save a lot of money".

In May the government announced from July 1, 2015 children between 6 and 12 will be given free GP visits, which currently only applies to children 5 and under.  For the next nine months, until the government's policy starts, the bill in Northland will be footed by Northland District Health Board (DHB), Te Tai Tokerau Primary Health Organisation (PHO) and Manaia Health PHO.  It is expected the policy will cost around $450,000 and affect 16,173 children. Chief executive of Northland DHB, Nick Chamberlain, said since it was a limited period until the government funded the policy, it was possible for the DHB and PHOs to start funding early. "I guess it was because we could and because we all decided it was important," Dr Chamberlain said.

Chief executive of Manaia Health PHO, Chris Farrelly, said this was one of many steps the organisations were taking to allow wider access to healthcare.  "This is not an isolated kind of initiative," Mr Farrelly said. "It's in the context of what has already been done in Northland". The groups also plan to address other barriers to healthcare such as physical access, particularly for those living in rural areas, through satellite clinics and extending opening hours. Chief executive of Te Tai Tokerau PHO, Rose Lightfoot, said community feedback she had received has been positive. "People have been really pleased about it," she said.  The policy was not officially announced until today as organisations involved wanted to make sure there were no teething problems. "It's all very well to go to a doctor but then you have to go and pay for the scripts as well," Ms Lightfoot said.  That is why it was important that the $5 fee for prescription medicines be covered also, she said.

It is hoped that free GP visits will lower the rate of hospital admissions as people will be more willing to go to their doctors before an illness became serious.

A study released in 2013 found Northland had similar rates of rheumatic fever as a developing country and almost double the rate in the rest of New Zealand.

The disease, which starts with a sore throat, is easily spread through poor housing and overcrowding.

photo: Cara Collins, with her sons Sebastian (left) and Dimitrious. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Article source: The Northern Advocate 9:29 AM Tuesday Oct 14, 2014