Health campaigners have expressed alarm over plans by GPs to vote on charging patients for appointments.
The proposal is aimed at saving the NHS tens of millions of pounds a year by deterring patients from failing to turn up to appointments.
It will be discussed and voted on at the British Medical Association’s annual local medical committee conference later this month in York, despite opposition to the idea from doctors’ leaders and the general public.
Under the plan, patients could be charged a flat fee of up to £25. The proposed fee is seen as an incentive for patients to turn up to appointments and a way of helping to fund cash-strapped doctors’ surgeries.
The BMA’s Wiltshire local medical committee, one of the doctors’ groups backing the proposal, said a national charging system should be explored. It said the idea that healthcare should be free at the point of delivery – one of the key founding principles of the NHS – was no longer viable.
The Gloucestershire committee agreed. In the conference agenda [pdf], it said: “The time has come to impose a national charge for consultations as part of a strategy of demand management.”
Health service campaigners accused supporters of the idea of trying to exploit vulnerable people. Dr Mike Smith, the chairman of the Patients Association, said it would push patients to seek help from already oversubscribed hospital A&E departments.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, he said: “A move to charge for routine appointments will have a devastating impact on many vulnerable patients. This will put pressure on already stretched A&E services as people would be reluctant to pay to visit their GP.”
He added: “There are many people today who cannot afford to pay for every GP appointment. This practice can be seen as nothing less than profiteering from the most vulnerable as they attempt to access healthcare which is theirs by right.”
National Voices, a coalition that campaigns for better health and social care, questioned why the BMA was re-examining an idea that it had already rejected. It successfully campaigned against government proposals to charge migrants for GP appointments.
The general public is against paying to see a GP, even if it would help save local practices, according to a recent opinion poll. A ComRes poll in March found that while one in four (27%) people said they would be willing to pay £10 to visit their GP visit rather than see the practice shut down, more than double that – 56% – were against any charges.