The Department of Health is to review GP lists in Northern Ireland after it was revealed that large numbers of people living in the Republic are using northern addresses to access free health care.
Derry GP Tom Black, secretary of the Western Local Medical Committee, revealed yesterday (Wednesday) that as many as 45,000 people from the Republic could be availing of northern health services.
Dr Black said provision should be made for people living close to the border in the Republic to access health care in Northern Ireland.
He said people moved south of the border in search of cheaper housing but were expected to give up easy access to health care.
"It's just ridiculous for someone living in Muff [on the Donegal side of the Derry border] to have to travel to Moville (16 miles away) when they can come the few miles into Derry," he said.
Dr Black said people were also being forced to give up their family GPs because they moved across the border.
Dr Black said the number of people availing of health care in Northern Ireland from the south could be estimated by the percentage of extra patients on GP lists based on census figures.
In the western trust area (Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh) the figure was 7% higher while in the southern trust area (Armagh) the figure was 6%.
This corresponded to 20,000 extra patients over GP lists in the north-west and up to 24,000 in the south-east. The extra patient percentage for Belfast was just 3%.
While Dr Black said he felt new provisions should be made for southern patients, the Department of Health has indicated there will be a clampdown on the practice.
"There are arrangements in place for the review of the accuracy of GP lists and this work is taken forward by the Central Service Agency," a spokeswoman said.
"The work involves visiting practices and reviewing patient registrations where queries exist. This includes checking addresses and removal of registrations when addresses cannot be validated. In addition, the addresses of cross-border workers are checked annually with their employers."
She stressed that EU regulations allowed for urgent necessary treatment to be provided to people in need of care wherever they live.
A spokeswoman for the Southern Health Board said patients using their services must provide an address in Northern Ireland.
"People living in the Republic who work in Northern Ireland are entitled to free health care here. It may be possible that some people living in the south do give Northern Ireland addresses to avail of health and social services," she said.
A number of cross border health initiatives – including an out-of-hours GP service – are already in place.