The Liberal Democrats are considering offering GPs financial incentives to practise in impoverished areas that have few doctors' surgeries. The party is badly in need of populist policies to salvage its flagging general election prospects and it is felt this move could prove a vote-winner.
Health is proving to be a major battleground in the long build-up to next year's national poll. GP leaders claimed last week that 700,000 patients could lose their family doctor within months, as nearly 100 cash-starved surgeries face closure as a result of funding reforms. Millions more patients would have to wait longer for their appointments.
But Lib Dem Health minister Norman Lamb thinks that reviving and developing a party policy from the last election could be a vote-winner. The "patient premium" would make sure it pays for GPs to work in poor communities.
"My concerns are health inequalities and under-doctored areas. We need to combat ill-health and improve preventive care by concentrating on areas where there is poorer access [to doctors' surgeries]," Mr Lamb said.
"We're looking at improving these areas with the idea of creating incentives to get GPs working in areas where they can be really effective. In my view this [inequality] is something that still needs to be addressed."
The Lib Dems have scored as poorly as 9 per cent in several recent opinion polls, a huge slump from the 23 per cent share of the 2010 general election vote. The party could lose all its 12 MEPs at this month's European elections.
Senior party figures believe that the £2.5bn pupil premium, which channels extra money to schools based on the number of children from poor households they are educating, has been one of the Lib Dem's biggest but most under-appreciated successes in government. Schools are given up to £1,900 a year for each child they teach from a disadvantaged background, such as those in the care system.
Rolling out the model across other policy areas would be a way for the party belatedly to get credit for the idea. Party President Tim Farron and Local Government minister Stephen Williams want to expand the pupil premium to higher education, to help university students from poorer backgrounds.
Mr Lamb said that the patient premium proposal needs to be refined, but he has submitted the "basic principle" to a policy development committee that is considering what should go into the general election manifesto. Considered a possible future Lib Dem leader, Mr Lamb is a powerful figure in the party and a well-known coalition minister, so the policy is likely to be adopted for next year's campaign.
As Lib Dem health spokesman before the 2010 election, Mr Lamb envisaged a patient premium, that would see extra funding attached to treating people from deprived backgrounds. He claimed then that GPs received more money for practising in a wealthy area than they did in a poorer one, arguing that health inequalities "scar our society".
However, the patient premium was effectively lost as the coalition forced through a series of health reforms in the first half of the current Parliament.Reuse content