Medicare rebate rise fails to cure hip pocket pain

The cost of seeing a doctor has fallen thanks to a small rise in Medicare rebates. But it's hardly made a dent in patient's out-of-pocket expenses.

From July 1, patients seeing a non bulk billing GP will return an extra 60 cents per visit while Medicare rebates for a specialist visit increased by $1.40.

Medicare rebates for thousands of specialist procedures from births to hip replacements have also risen.

But the minor increases do not make up for the 20 per cent increase in out-of-pocket expenses patients have faced over the last five years.

Medicare rebates now cover just 47 per cent of the cost of seeing a GP, down from 85 per cent when the scheme was introduced in 1984.

Unlike Medicare, the AMA increases its fees in line with medical inflation each year.

The amounts patients pay out of their own pocket to see a doctor has risen steadily for five years after Labor froze Medicare rebates for a short period in 2013 and the Coalition continued the freeze from 2014.

 

Medicare rebates rose by a minor 1.5 per cent this week. Picture: iStock.
Medicare rebates rose by a minor 1.5 per cent this week. Picture: iStock.

The average out of pocket expense for seeing a GP rose over 20 per cent from $31.03 in 2013-14 to $37.39 in 2017-18.

And Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows 1.3 million Australians delayed seeing a doctor in 2016-17 because of the cost.

To get around the freeze there has been speculation that GPs were seeing patients more often and this is supported by government data showings Australians now see their GP an average of 6.1 times a year, up from 5.4 times in 2010-11.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Medicare rebate increases applied to 4400 items, "saving patients money and demonstrating the Morrison Government's commitment to keeping health care more affordable".

"The most recent published data shows GP bulk billing at a record 86 per cent. This means that almost nine in 10 GP services under Medicare were bulk billed at no cost to the patient," he said.

However, the number of services bulk billed is not the same as the number of patients bulk billed.

Health department figures show around one in three patients are not bulk billed by their doctor.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone wants more money for general practice. Picture: Kym Smith/News Corp Australia
Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone wants more money for general practice. Picture: Kym Smith/News Corp Australia

Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone said the 60 cent increase in rebates for a GP visit were small and "obviously do not redress the income lost from the freeze".

"It does highlight the lack of investment in general practice and we need to look at other measures outside the Medicare rebate to address this," he said.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Harry Nespolon said Doctors who bulk bill their patients and accept the $38 Medicare rebate as full payment for their service had lost around $142,000 in income as a result of the freeze.

"Doctors are just not going into general practice anymore. Just look at the NHS (in the UK), they are 5,000 GP's short and that will be our future," he said.

"We really need to recapitalise general practice."

The Consumers Health Forum chief Leanne Wells said Australia has "burgeoning chronic disease and associated risk factors and that many avoid going to GPs because of cost".

"We need to make the shift to new models of care and funding these. These are the issues that a longer term, comprehensive ten year primary care plan must address," she said.

Opposition health spokesman Chris Bowen said Under the Liberals, out of pocket costs have never been higher.

"The Government's own figures show that Australians are paying $10 more to see a GP than when the Liberals were elected, and a staggering $33 more to see a specialist," he said.



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