Now is not the time to erode primary care, end freeze

The Consumers Health Forum calls on the Federal Government and the Opposition to lift the freeze on Medicare payments, to undertake a wide-ranging review of health costs and give new Health Care Home models of care the maximum chance of success.

The Federal Government’s deal with pathologists at the weekend should mean pathologists continue to bulk bill Medicare for the meantime – a win for healthcare consumers. Both pathology and GP services – general practice more so - are critical front line services vital to preventing ill health, managing chronic conditions and mental health early, and keeping people well and out of hospital.

“All the evidence tells us that general practice and universally accessible quality primary health care through this setting is the backbone to sustainable health care. At a time when hospital budgets are under pressure and continue to strain health finances, the pathology reversal calls into question the arguments for maintaining a $925 million freeze on payments to doctors,” the CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, said.

“The Medicare freeze, which the Government has extended until 2020, was originally initiated by Labor, which has also so far declined to reverse the measure.

“ABS statistics show that 5 per cent of people already delay or skip GP visits due to cost and that figure would climb significantly if bulk billing declined. Maintaining the Medicare freeze is a setback for consumers and has serious implications for the outlook of our health system and the care people will be able to access.

“The National Health Performance Authority has reported that people who don’t see the doctor because of cost are 30 per cent more likely to go to a hospital emergency department, at increased cost to the taxpayer. This is the exact opposite trend to what we want to see happen.

“Consumers, GPs and other healthcare professionals have applauded the Government’s plan to reform primary care through the establishment of Health Care Homes in the community. But we are concerned that the freeze and its effects on access and general practice viability could seriously stunt their implementation.

“We acknowledge the Government needs to take action to moderate the continued rise in health care costs. But primary health care is not where we need to be looking for savings. Further prolonging the freeze so that doctors cannot expect to receive cost of living rises in Medicare benefits for six years threatens the future of bulk billing, a fundamental element to the success of Australia’s universal health system.

“We are concerned that many GPs will have to start charging patients a gap fee and once they have systems installed to charge extra, it will be difficult to reverse. “Australians have supported Medicare because it does offer no-cost access to doctors and public hospitals.

“Our political leaders cannot claim to support the principles of Medicare if they are to preside over the erosion of access to care and the growth of a two-tiered health system.

“The Health Minister, Sussan Ley, has shown she is prepared to get the ball rolling on difficult reforms including into primary care for chronic illness, and reviewing private health insurance and Medicare benefits.

“The review into primary care demonstrated the widespread need for co-ordinated care of chronic and complex conditions and proposed changes to pay doctors and other health practitioners to take an integrated approach.

“But such needed reforms are unlikely to succeed if doctors are expected to work for lower real incomes. The Health Care Homes plan is not going to work if consumers have to pay a gap for services.

“Now is the time for the Coalition and Labor to explore cost-effective improvements to our health system that will secure the universal access principles of Medicare for the future,” Ms Wells said.


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Mark Metherell
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