The Welsh government set out plans today that could see half of GP practices in Wales offer extended hours opening by March 2016.
A three-point plan unveiled by health minister Lesley Griffiths is initially focusing on encouraging practices to make more appointments available in the 5pm-6.30pm part of the day and to stop half-day closures.
In the next two phases, Welsh health boards are expected to review spending on existing enhanced services to realign it ‘with key priorities such as GP access’.
They are expected to use this funding to increase the proportion of practices opening extended hours to 50% by March 2016, and then to make available ‘planned appointments at weekends’.
But GPC Wales chairman Dr David Bailey warned that shifting funding away from existing enhanced services to pay for access schemes could force practices to cut back services for patients with long-term conditions and refer more to hospital.
Dr Bailey said: ‘Is extended hours opening a higher priority for our patients than continuing to provide diabetic enhanced services, or nursing home services? What are they going to disinvest in?’
He said that if PCTs no longer offered enhanced services funding for extended diabetic care, practices would ‘have to stop doing it, and almost certainly that would lead to a higher referral rate to secondary care’.
Dr Bailey said: ‘Is it more important to improve services for working people or those with chronic disease? There is a balance to be struck.’
Official data show that GP practices in Wales have made significant improvements to access in the last two years.
The proportion of practices in Wales open throughout core hours of 8am to 6.30pm five days a week rose by 11% between 2010 and 2011.
Ms Griffiths said said that GP practices in parts of Wales had made huge progress on improving access by stopping half-day closing.
‘In Cwm Taf in 2011 there were 63% of practices with half-day closing, now half-day closing has ceased in all but one practice,’ she said.
Across Wales, 12% of GP practices currently offer appointments outside core hours of 8am to 6.30pm.