The Australian Medical Association (AMA) yesterday joined forces with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) to try and push the Government to end the freeze on Medicare rebates paid to GPs, medical specialists and pathology and radiology services.
The initial freeze, which means that rebates paid to service providers do not increase with inflation, was implemented in 2014 and, in Budget 2016/17, was earmarked for extension to 2020. The RACGP was the first to react on day one of the federal election campaign by calling on its 30,000 members to display posters in practices, as well as speaking to patients about the issue.
AMA President Professor Brian Owler said that the freeze would ultimately lead to patients paying more for services as GPs implemented new or higher co-payments to cover the costs. This would deter people from seeing their GP and would result in more people requiring expensive hospital treatment. “We know that there’s good evidence to say some people will not see their doctor, that they will defer having treatment,” Prof. Owler said.
“It’s also more likely that they will end up in hospital needing more expensive hospital treatment.”
Noting that GPs had until now covered the rising costs, Prof. Owler stated that this couldn’t continue as rising staff costs, rents and indemnity insurance meant that practices were becoming financially unviable.
“The Medicare freeze is not just a co-payment by stealth, it is a sneaky new tax that punishes every Australian family,” he said.
“The medical profession is united in its efforts to put an end to the Medicare freeze and protect patients.”
Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia, Josh Frydenberg, said that the freeze on increasing the rebates was necessary to ensure that funding to other areas of the health system could continue. “It is being continued because we’re ploughing the money into many other areas of the health system, including the Turnbull Government’s recent announcement that more than $2.9 billion additional [funding] will be put into public hospitals,” he said. “Bulk-billing rates are now reaching historic highs at 85 per cent and more money every year is being put into Medicare.”
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Visiting the GP can be stressful for many and the added worry of how you are going to afford to pay for that consultation is unnecessary and unfair. Having had its GP co-payment well and truly rejected by the electorate, the Government has simply shifted the onus to GPs who should be concerned about giving their patients the best possible care, not balancing the books.
Not only will practices have to increase costs and introduce new billing structures, they could potentially start to pick and choose which type of patients they treat. If a GP can charge a full-fee paying patient $70 to $80 for a five-minute consultation, why would they have a list full of bulk-billed patients for whom they can only claim $36.30 each? And woe-betide any patient who has complex medical needs and requires longer or more frequent consultations for they may soon find themselves ‘struck off the list’, figuratively speaking.
Of course, no GP would stop seeing a patient based on cost. It’s unethical, but when considering whether or not to accept a new patient, cost factors must surely start to come into consideration. GPs, like any other service provider, have to have a business plan and if that plan doesn’t stack up financially, it either has to be changed to generate more revenue or the practice has to call it quits.
And this is the danger, especially in rural areas where health services may already be difficult to access. If GPs start to move their practices to more affluent areas or pick and choose their patients, who will treat those who are less ‘financially attractive’? It will mean that they may have to travel further (incurring costs) and wait longer to see a GP, which could prove costly in more ways than one.
Do you pay to see your GP? If so, how much are you charged? If bulk billed, would you pay a fee to continue this arrangement or would you try and find another doctor? Have you ever avoided visiting a GP because of the cost?