Patients could pay to see GP, figures show

PATIENTS could be compelled to pay for visits to the doctor, with Health Department figures showing the government’s indexation freeze would leave GPs $2 worse off by 2018.

LABOR health spokeswoman Catherine King and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) say the government’s four-year indexation freeze on Medicare rebates amounts to a “co-payment by stealth” despite the government having dumped its plan for a $5 patient co-payment earlier this year.

They point to a University of Sydney study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, which estimates GPs will have to charge non-concession patients an extra $8.43 a visit by 2017/18 to make up for a 7.1 per cent drop in income. Health department modelling, obtained under Freedom of Information laws, suggests benefits for standard GP consultations will be $2.10 less by 2017/18 under the freeze. It says the indexation freeze will save $1.3 billion over four years. The documents claim the MJA article uses consumer price index (inflation) figures, even though Medicare fees are indexed by the generally-lower wage cost index. It also uses survey data rather than Medicare data and ignores potential increases in revenue, such as higher fee charges for patients who aren’t bulk-billed, the documents say. Health Minister Sussan Ley on Friday would not rule out the possibility of costs being passed on to patients, saying it was ultimately the doctors’ discretion what they charged patients. But the health department’s modelling showed changes would be minimal and she therefore did not expect major changes in the way patients were billed as a result of this measure, she said. The minister said she was open to reviewing the indexation freeze in future. A spokesman for Ms King said the figures were at odds with the MJA. “The government has denied that there is any cost, but its own figures now indicate that this is not true,” he said. “If the minister doesn’t agree with the Medical Journal of Australia, she should tell people what the figure is.” AMA president Brian Owler said the health department figures didn’t reflect the true costs that GPs would face because they didn’t appear to be compounded. “If costs are going up for the GP and other providers as well, at rates that are above CPI, then it only stands to reason, especially in areas that are less affluent, they won’t be able to afford to continue to bulk-bill patients,” Assoc Prof Owler told AAP. “That will put a strain on the viability of practices and in other areas, you’re more likely to see increased out-of-pocket expenses in the form of gaps.”