I would like to assure the Deputy that Government is committed to developing primary and community services in Wicklow and elsewhere. We also remain committed to the continued development of GP capacity to ensure that patients continue to have access to GP services.
Under the GMS scheme, the HSE contracts GPs to provide medical services without charge to medical card and GP visit card holders. Where a vacancy arises in a practice with a GMS contract, the HSE becomes actively involved in the selection process to find a replacement GP. Currently there are 76 GPs who hold GMS contracts in Co. Wicklow and no GMS vacancies.
The Government is aware, however, of the workforce issues currently facing general practice. While GMS patients are assisted in finding a GP by the National Medical Card Unit, who can assign them to a GMS panel, I recognise private patients can have difficulty in finding a local GP willing to accept them as a patient.
Several efforts to increase the number of practising GPs have been undertaken in recent years. Changes have been made to the entry provisions to the GMS scheme to facilitate more flexible/shared GMS contracts, and to the retirement provisions for GPs under the GMS scheme. An enhanced supports package for rural GP practices was also introduced.
Under the 2019 GP Agreement, the Government will increase annual expenditure in general practice by €210 million over the Agreement’s lifetime from 2019 to 2023. It provides for increases in capitation fees, improved maternity and paternity arrangements, as well as enhanced supports for rural practices and the introduction of a €2 million support for practices in deprived urban areas.
The number of entrants to GP training has increased from 120 in 2009 to 233 this year. Further increases are expected as responsibility for training has transferred from the HSE to the Irish College of General Practitioners.
Investment in the development of primary care services is continuing. In Wicklow alone, there are now seven operational Primary Care Centres, plus another in Arklow under construction and due to open next year. This represents new investment - Bray only became operational last year, Baltinglass in January of this year and I had the pleasure of opening the centre in Rathdrum just a few weeks ago. These facilities are designed to benefit the local community first and foremost, but they also support staff and GPs as well by enabling multi-disciplinary working and simply by being modern and purpose built working environments.
Our continuing investment in the wider primary care sector will hopefully encourage GPs to practice in Wicklow and elsewhere across the country.