Patients to pay $6 for a doctor

BULK billed doctor’s visits will come to an end for general patients when the next controversial tranche of the government’s Medicare reforms to come into effect.

From July the government will slash the Medicare rebate for general consumers by $5, Medicare payments for pensioners and children won’t be cut and they will still be bulk billed.

At the same time the government will freeze the inflation indexation of the Medicare rebate adding another 75 cents to patient charges.

AMA president Professor Brian Owler has warned doctors will face a substantial cut to their incomes unless they pass these cuts on to their patients and the new charges will deter some patients from seeing a doctor.

The changes mean patients who were previously bulk billed could face a $6 charge to see their GP while the one in three people already paying a copayment could see their fees rise from $37 to $43.

Doctors are fighting the changes but Health Minister Sussan Ley said it was “vital we get a price signal” so that Australian’s valued the services GPs provided.

“There are a lot of people attending consultations today who are paying nothing, who could afford to pay a bit more,” she said in Melbourne.

Seven in ten non-concessional patients are currently bulk billed and pay nothing to see a doctor the minister says.

“We need to value the service our GPs provide,” she said.

Finance Minister Mathias Corman refused to rule out means testing access to bulk billing saying the government would have more to say on Medicare in the budget.

“We want to ensure vulnerable patients, pensioners and concession card holders and the like continue to have access to bulk billing but those of us who can afford to pay more do pay a small proportion when we access relevant medical services,” he said.

Earlier this month the government was forced to back down on another controversial element of its Medicare reforms that would have seen people paying $20 for short consultations with their GP.

However, the minister says she is committed to implementing the other changes forecast to save the government around $2 billion even though they are also facing opposition from doctors and consumers.

And an analysis of Medicare data shows families in Coalition electorates are likely to be hardest hit by the cuts because many of these voters already pay up to $36 to see a doctor and this will rise by a further $6.

Seventeen of the 22 electorates where one in three people are already paying up to $36 to see a doctor are held by Coalition MPs.

Unlike her predecessor Ms Ley is consulting with doctors over the changes and asking for their input into how best to bring in a price signal for Medicare.

Rural Doctors Association Australia president Professor Dennis Pashin who met with the minister late last week says he told her the government’s proposed policy changes were “shotgun treatment”.

They would have adverse health outcomes and discourage patients from seeking health care, he said.

The RDAA has instead proposed alternative savings measures to the minister that would see quality general practices rewarded with practice grants.

Money would be cut from medical practices that did not provide after hours care, training for medical graduates and continuity of care but kept for quality practices, he said.

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said the minister’s push make people pay to see the doctor “confirms the minister’s promised “consultations” with doctors and patients are a farce”.

“Even before they have barely begun, the minister is openly declaring she will be ignoring the health experts and professionals and sticking with her GP Tax,” she said.