Medical and welfare groups have hailed National's promise to extend free doctor visits for young children to after-hours.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said yesterday that district health boards would work with GPs and after-hours clinics to implement free care for children aged under 6. He estimated this would cost the state around $7 million a year and expected it would be running by next July.

Some clinics would not want to participate, but DHBs would ensure free alternatives were available. "Parents shouldn't be put off taking their young children to the doctor because of costs they can't afford," said Mr Ryall.

DHBs say fees for after-hours - evenings, overnight, weekends and public holidays - for under-6s range from no charge to nearly $100. The average is estimated to be about $17.

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Primary care is mainly run by private businesses.

The Medical Association and the Child Poverty Action Group welcomed National's commitment.

Action group spokeswoman Professor Innes Asher, a paediatrician, said: "We're very pleased one of the key recommendations of [our] Left Further Behind report is going to be implemented."

Labour's health spokesman, Grant Robertson, would not disclose if his party intended to match National's commitment on under-6s, but said: "This is something that needed to happen, especially given the increasing costs in after-hours under this Government."

UNDER-6 FEES
Daytime Monday-Friday
* GP visits are free for 87 per cent of children aged under 6.
* Average fee is $14.49 for remaining 13 per cent, with maximum of $42.

After-hours
* Average fee is currently $17.
* Maximum is $100.