Medicare review could cut services

Health Minister Sussan Ley has denied that the impending Government review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) is an attack on doctors.

Earlier this week, Ms Ley announced a review of around 5700 MBS procedures, in an attempt to rid the bloated service of unnecessary and potentially unsafe practices. As a nation, we spend around $155 billion on health each year, however, a recent investigation into the benefits schedule showed that about $46 billion is being wasted on unnecessary services.

“This is a direct attack on the integrity of the medical profession. It is an approach that undermines the confidence that patients have in their doctors,” said AMA President Dr Brian Owler. “It’s clearly a cost-cutting exercise. It’s about removing services for patients.”

But the Health Minister has denied that the intention of the review is to attack doctors, and rejected the notion that the review is merely a cost-cutting measure – however, she did admit that there were savings to be found as a result of the review.

“I am not suggesting that the MBS is being disused, I am not suggesting that doctors are doing the wrong thing, I want to make that very clear,” she said. “It’s about building the best possible health system for the 21st century. Subjecting patients to x-rays – which they probably don’t need – and going through a lot of scans, some of these things don’t necessarily cause patients harm, but the visibility of the cost is important.

“So no-one sees the costs, except I do, because the Government pays for it,” she said.

Experts have identified around 150 unsafe, inappropriate or ineffective medical services that receive Medicare and health insurance rebates.

There is also a shared belief that the current system could potentially be putting patients at risk, as well as wasting precious health dollars that could be better spent in other areas of medicine.

Early intervention tonsillectomies for children, high-density bone scans for seniors and tests on lower back pain are some of the services that could be on the chopping block when the task force reports back later this year.

Ms Ley said the Government would consult with an expert task force consisting of medical professionals to help decide on the medical issues up for debate.

“The task force itself is comprised of clinicians because the last thing I ever want it to be is the Department of Health or politicians telling doctors what Medicare should look like,” Ms Ley said.

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Opinion: Review is still the right answer

It would seem, that once again, the Government has put the medical profession off side, but a review of Medicare benefits may still prove beneficial to all Australians.

Australians should welcome this Government review, so long as consumers are not denied access to health services. Cutting back the number of unnecessary services – especially those that could be harmful to patients – is not a bad thing. And if the by-product of that is savings to the consumer and for the budget, then this should surely be seen as a positive move. 

However, the problem is how to decide which treatments and diagnostic tests are necessary and which are not. That is the monumental job ahead of the expert task force assigned to this review.

The AMA may be accusing Sussan Ley of undermining the confidence of doctors, which is probably a fair call.

This issue, however, does put the spotlight on the procedures that doctors order for their patients. This spotlight may be uncomfortable for doctors, and it puts the onus on patients to question doctors’ orders. Patients should ask what their options are, as well as enquire about the risks of any procedures ordered. If doctors are not happy to assist their patients, then they are in the wrong profession.

A review of Medicare hasn’t taken place since the early 1980s. Ms Ley denies that finding savings is not the main aim of the review, but should it occur, it could allow the Government to reinvest in new technologies, new services and new procedures, which would benefit us all.

What do you think? Do you think it is time that Medicare undergoes a review? Are you worried that essential health services may be victim to such a review? Would you be happy if the result of this procedure meant savings for you? 

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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