Doctors seek halt to Medicare cuts that threaten telehealth

A peak health body is urging the government to reconsider any rollback of telehealth services, calling rebates for longer calls a “no brainer”.

The Morrison government had planned to repeal rebates for longer phone consultations on 30 June, but following a national cabinet meeting on 17 June, the Labor government has agreed to extend them until 31 December 2022.

However, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is urging the government to permanently keep rebates for telehealth consultations of 20 minutes or more.

RACGP president Dr Karen Price said the swift addition of telehealth to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) – the list of Medicare services subsidised by the Australian government – was welcome and long overdue, however there were “several challenges” the new government had to face.

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“The government should ensure that patients with complex needs can access the care they require by making longer telephone consultations a permanent fixture of telehealth,” Dr Price said.

“This is a no-brainer, considering that in 2020-21, phone consultations comprised 98 per cent of all telehealth services provided by GPs.

“The RACGP wants to see the new government … introduce these rebates for patients on an ongoing basis.”

Dr Price said removing rebates for longer consultations would hurt some of society’s most vulnerable members.

“It is particularly detrimental for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, older patients, people with a disability and those living in rural and remote areas,” she said.

“These groups already have poorer health outcomes than the general population so making these Medicare items for longer phone consultations permanent needs to be a high priority for the new government.”

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The RACGP also wants to see Medicare phone consultations for chronic disease management and mental health services reinstated.

In a submission to the Australian National Audit Office, which is reviewing telehealth services, the RACGP argued that telehealth was vital for carers or parents of young children who did not require their physical presence during the consultation.

“Allowing greater flexibility would prevent children needing to take time off school for GP consultations with their parents about referrals, prescriptions and test results,” the submission stated.

The lobbying is part of a concerted push by the RACGP to improve the working conditions and remuneration for GPs, including regularly reviewing the Medicare rebate scheme.

Earlier this month, RACGP vice-president Dr Bruce Willett said recent events had shown that GPs and general practice teams were needed more than ever.

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“Over the last two-and-a-bit years we have helped patients during the Black Summer bushfires, COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine rollout and floods. These crises have reinforced how vital GPs and general practice teams are to their communities when disaster strikes,” Dr Willett said.

“The nation’s hospital system is operating under tremendous strain, and this requires urgent attention. However, the government must also have front of mind that boosting investment in general practice care will relieve pressure on the entire health system and improve patient health outcomes.”

The RACGP is urging the government to increase Medicare rebates, which were frozen from 2014 to 2019 and have not kept up with inflation.

The RACGP claims this has hurt practices’ bottom line and is a disincentive to trainee doctors to specialise as GPs as there are more financial rewards in other specialities.

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