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Why the idea of a charging GP is too perilous

By Jane Merrick

One evening, a few weeks ago, I found a lump in my breast. After a fretful night's sleep, I called my GP the next morning to make an appointment.

In spite of calling as soon as the lines opened at 8am, I was kept on hold for 15 minutes. When I finally got through, and asked to see a female doctor, the receptionist told me there were no appointments left for the day.

I told the receptionist that I'd found a lump and three weeks wasn't really good enough, for the health service, in 2014.

I got upset. "What if I have cancer? Do you think three weeks is okay to see a GP?" If I'd hoped the c-word would open a magical door, I was wrong.

In the end, I was offered an appointment with a "nurse practitioner", who was excellent and caring. I was referred to my local hospital's breast clinic.

And in the end, thankfully, it was a benign lump that I had removed. But such was my state of anxiety on that morning, that I would have done anything to see my GP – including paying to jump the queue.

This willingness to throw money at a problem must be partly the reason why GPs are considering introducing charges to see a doctor of between £10 and £25. The British Medical Association will vote on the proposal later this month.

Those behind the motion say it aims to deter people who miss appointments, a problem which costs the health service £162m a year.

It is also an acknowledgement that the health service needs more funding.

Yet, even though I may have been willing to pay, this is a dangerous idea that would surely break the health service.

It would become a two-tier system.

The Labour MP Frank Field has proposed an increase in national insurance contributions. At least this would be fairer (because higher earners would pay more) than a regressive charge for all GP appointments.

Another Labour MP, Ian Austin, has suggested giving real choice to patients: if their own GP has no appointments, they can choose another one.

These are radical ideas that need to be looked at urgently by the government.

If GPs vote this month for charges, ministers must veto such a dangerously divisive measure.

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