Senate spells doom for Tony Abbott’s plan to slash Medicare rebates

Tony Abbott’s start to the new political year is mirroring how the last ended with the Senate vowing to overturn his plan to slash Medicare rebates, blowing a further $1.3 billion hole in the budget bottom line.

Labor leader Bill Shorten declared the opposition would strike down the “sneaky, back door” $20 cut to the Medicare rebate when the Parliament resumes in February.  

Labor’s position spells doom for the measure which is already opposed by the Greens and four more crossbench senators including Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie, Nick Xenophon and Glenn Lazarus who combined form the 39 votes to disallow a government regulation.  The measure is being introduced as part of the former health minister Peter Dutton’s revamp of the original $7 GP co-payment, which Labor and the crossbench also opposed. 

The government had hoped for a fresh start with the crossbenchers after they last year voted down the government’s higher education reforms, vowed to block the original $7 GP fee and opposed an increase to the fuel excise which the Coalition ended up introducing via a back door method.

The new Health Minister Sussan Ley, who is on holidays until the day the cuts come into effect on January 19, immediately attacked Labor’s announcement as a “sneaky backflip all about politics, not patients”.

Mr Abbott broke his holiday to call on Labor and the crossbenchers to put up their own savings ideas in an interview with Melbourne radio 3AW, in which he defended the “price signal” as a “serious economic reform” and said it would lead to doctors spending more time with their patients and a shift way from the so-called practice of “six-minute medicine”.

Critics say paying the full rebate for short visits encourages “six-minute medicine” where some doctors schedule short, fast appointments but still receive the same maximum taxpayer subsidy paid for longer visits.

AMA president Brian Owler has previously called for a model that would allow doctors to spend more time on prevention and chronic disease management rather than “being subject to a competitive drive towards six-minute medicine”.

But on Wednesday Dr Owler dismissed the rebate cuts as nothing more than “$1.3 billion grab” from families and doctors and said it was “a budget cut, not a health policy”.

“The government is simply ripping $1.3 billion out of primary health and trying to dress it up as some sort of measure to support quality care,” Dr Owler said.

“Providing quality care is not about watching the clock,” he said and warned the costs would likely be passed on to patients who could end up overcrowding hospital emergency wards as a result.  

But Mr Abbott said long waiting times at emergency wards would discourage patients from visiting the hospital instead of the doctor.

“Anyone who has been to an emergency department knows that there is a system of triaging and if you don’t have a serious complaint you wait – sometimes quite a long time,” he said.

The Prime Minister called on his critics to provide their own budget savings if they continued to reject the government’s attempts to restore the budget to surplus and pay down the debt.

“We are serious about economic reform, we are serious about budget responsibility – is the Senate? That is the question; are they serious about economic reform and budget responsibility and if they don’t like what this Government is doing tell us what their alternative is,” he said.

Mr Shorten said his party would only offer health policies that were good for Medicare but did not offer any alternative savings while campaigning in Ipswich for the state opposition in the Queensland election.  Mr Shorten has previously said he is “open to considering” ways of ensuring patients are not “shunted through in six minutes” for a doctor.

But on Wednesday he said the cuts would lead to less people visiting the doctor. “We will say to Tony Abbott, you are not going to damage the Medicare system if we’ve got anything to do with it.”

The changes were quietly listed just before Christmas and revealed the rebate would drop from $37.05 to $16.95 for patients who saw their doctor for less than 10 minutes.