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Medicare freeze not hurting GPs: Ley

Saturday, 25th July, 2015

Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley has rejected claims that the indexation freeze on Medicare rebates is hurting country GP practices and their patients.

The Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) says continuing the freeze was “threatening the very future of viable rural medical practice” in many country towns.

ACRRM President Lucie Walters said many country people were in a lower socio-economic demographic than their urban counterparts and the freeze was shifting the cost of health care onto them.

“They already suffer from poorer health outcomes and poorer access to primary care services, so to continue to implement a policy that makes it even more difficult for them to access affordable primary care is, quite simply, irresponsible health policy,” Ass. Prof. Walters said.

“Rural practice also runs on much narrower margins, with some doctors already needing to charge some patients a gap to ensure they can maximise patient access to their services without compromising the quality of these services.”

Ass. Prof. Walters said it was inappropriate for the quality of primary care services to be compromised for rural people, but the Medicare freeze was doing just that.

Last month local GP Dr Ramu Nachiappan told a Senate select committee on health that the four-year indexation freeze was a co-payment by stealth that was beginning to affect the viability of general practice.

“Already people are turning up at emergency departments and this will worsen,” Dr Nachiappan told a hearing in Broken Hill.

The Rural Doctors Association of Australia said while the freeze had resulted in some people fronting up to hospitals seeking treatment, others were simply putting off going to the doctor until their condition got worse.

“This is putting significantly more pressure on the hospital system and on local rural doctors, while also costing governments much more,” the association’s president, professor Dennis Pashen said. 

“When you factor in consecutive CPI increases, the Government - through the freeze - is continuing to make a direct cut in the Medicare rebate for rural patients, many of whom are struggling financially.”

He said at the same time, the cost of seeing a doctor was rising as rural medical practices were forced to increase their fees just to remain viable.

However, Ms Ley said the rebate to GPs was only 65 cents lower than what it would have been had indexation been applied.

She said Department of Health modelling also suggests the rebate will be $2.10 lower by 2017-18 so the “temporary pause” shouldn’t provide any excuse for unfair increases by GPs.

“I have also said we’re open to reviewing the indexation pause in the future as part of our ongoing work with doctors and patients to reform Medicare,” Ms Ley said.

“At the end of the day, doctors are in control of what they charge and I would expect vulnerable and concessional patients will continue to be protected.”

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