Labour has opened up a new front in the election, targeting older voters with a major funding injection to pay for free doctor visits for about 700,000 senior citizens, as well as children aged under 13 and pregnant women.
Labour leader David Cunliffe announced the policy at his party's campaign launch yesterday, effectively outbidding National with its more modest $30 million Budget promise to extend free doctors' visits for all children aged under 13.
Topping $1 billion over four years, Labour's new policy also provides free GP visits and dental care for about 60,000 pregnant woman a year as well as continuing with National's plans to extend free GP visits to all primary school aged children.
Expected to cost at least $280 million a year, Mr Cunliffe said it would mean about 1.7 million people would be eligible for free checks while others would benefit from more subsidies.
The measures would be funded in Labour's first Budget in 2015 if it was in government and begin as soon as possible. The $120 million annual cost to cover senior citizens was likely to increase by about $5 million a year because of the ageing population.
The health policy could help take some of the sting out of Labour's plans to gradually increase the retirement age to 67 and targets NZ First leader Winston Peters' core support base of older voters.
Labour's policy was welcomed by Auckland Grey Power president Anne-Marie Coury, who said health care for seniors, such as free doctor visits, would help keep people in their homes and out of costly hospital care. "There is clear evidence to support having regular primary health care in place that is affordable and supported, if necessary, by free doctor visits," she said.
But National's Steven Joyce attacked it as extravagant, saying Labour was making promises the country could not afford.
"New Zealand has yet to achieve its first surplus since the Global Financial Crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes, and the Labour Party has broken out the Santa Claus outfits."
Outgoing Health Minister Tony Ryall said that Labour had underestimated the costs of its policy because it had not taken into account the likely increased uptake that would come from free doctor visits.
Labour's finance spokesman David Parker said the spending of about $1 billion over four years was well within the $1.5 billion cap on new spending Labour has promised to stick to and would not endanger the surplus. The costs were included in Labour's shadow Budget released earlier this year.
Mr Cunliffe said the policies meant about 40 per cent of New Zealanders would qualify for free doctor visits and prescriptions.
"It's an absolute basic. If you invest to keep people well and get people well, that pays dividends throughout their lives."
He said National's increase to prescription costs was costing senior citizens about $15 million a year which Labour did not believe they should have to pay. Labour has set aside $1 billion a year to pay for the inflationary pressures in areas such as health and education and intends to get extra revenue from a capital gains tax.
Labour's package also includes further subsidies for GPs in high needs areas to ensure they kept fees as low as possible, and to extend support for those with serious long-term conditions.
Free visits just what doc ordered for pensioner
In theory, 70-year-old Harald Pohl backs Labour's policy of free doctor visits and prescriptions, because it will ensure he sees his doctor four times a year and saves $40 for each visit.
The retired graphic designer has a chequered health history - a heart attack at age 41 and a heart bypass in his mid 50s - but has come right with medication, and plays competitive tennis.
"Free doctor visits will certainly make a hell of a difference ... [but] is it affordable? That's another matter," says Mr Pohl, who shares a unit in Blockhouse Bay.
He has to visit his local medical centre every three months to collect medication for his heart, fainting spells and aspirin to thin the blood.
If he feels all right he just visits the nurse to save money, but says he would probably visit the doctor if it was free.
"I have had occasions when I should probably have seen the doctor ... Some of these things have turned into a major problem."
The pensioner cancelled private health insurance at 65 when he could not afford a doubling in premiums.
He pays for doctor visits from modest savings but says friends rely on the pension and avoid going to the doctor until they need to.
"When you look at the pension and what it costs to live in Auckland with rates and everything else, it is just not possible," he says. "A lot of people have to move out of Auckland."
Labour's primary care policies
• Free doctor visits, prescriptions and dental care for pregnant women: $10.4 million a year.
• Free doctor visits and prescriptions for over-65s: $120 million a year. Free doctor visits for under-13s: $30 million a year (as per National's 2014 Budget).
• Extend CarePlus (for long-term health conditions - up to four free GP visits a year and free prescriptions): $90 million a year. Extend subsidies for high-needs areas: $40 million a year.
• More funding for maternity services and health NGOs: $20 million a year.
TOTAL: $280.4 million a year