Chatting to ABC Illawarra About The Medicare Rebate Freeze

MELINDA JAMES: Joining me now is Stephen Jones, who is the federal Member for Throsby and the Assistant Shadow Minister for Health. 

SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH, STEPHEN JONES: Good to be with you.

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JAMES: Good morning, now this is something that the Government introduced after it dumped its idea of a $5 GP co-payment and said in lieu of that the Medicare rebate will be frozen from today. What are your concerns about that? It's not going to mean any immediate extra cost for either GPs or patients from now.

JONES: Well, it certainly will mean additional costs. Let's go back to the start - before the election the Government promised to make no changes and they broke that promise. They tried to get Parliament to agree to the GP Tax, the Parliament said no and now they are trying to effectively force Doctors to introduce it by stealth by freezing the rebate. So they are paying less to Doctors who bulk bill for each consultation and if your Doctor doesn't bulk bill - that is, if you pay the money up front - you get less back from Medicare each time you go to claim your rebate. The Medical Journal of Australia has done the numbers on this, they estimate that within three years you'll be out of pocket around $8.50 for every consultation. 

JAMES: Right, so if you go to a Doctor who doesn't bulk bill they are saying that in three years you'll be paying at least an extra $8 or so. That is, if the Doctor passes it on.

JONES: Melinda, a lot of Doctors are going to be forced to pass that money on or cut services. There are a lot of practices that are very marginal, particularly in rural and regional areas. They are going to be forced to pass those additional costs on. We know that the cost of health goes up by more than inflation each year, roughly double the price of inflation in many years, so it is going to have an impact.

JAMES: Isn't that precisely why the Government has had to introduce this though? Because the escalating costs of trying to provide health services, they are coming close to not being able to be borne by current tax revenue.

JONES: This is a false economy. What we call primary care, that is the healthcare that is provided outside of a hospital setting, is the most efficient part of the health system; it accounts for around twelve per cent of the cost. The areas of great growth in expenditure are particularly focussed around hospital funding. If government wanted to focus on reducing costs or containing costs, why would you go to the most efficient and effective part of the health system? If you don't deal with a health problem at the GP level, the primary care level, those people end up in hospital. A problem becomes a chronic problem, a serious health condition becomes an acute health condition and that person ends up in hospital costing two, three, four or five times the cost that it would have had of having it dealt with at an early stage in a GP surgery.

JAMES: What do you think it might do to bulk billing rates as the reduction in the GP rebate reduces compared to inflation?

JONES: We are going to see bulk billing rates plummet again. They were at an all-time low when Tony Abbott was last the Health Minister, we got them up to above 90 per cent through a range of changes when we were in government. We expect that they are going to plummet again; we don't blame the Doctors, because the Doctors are effectively being put in a head-lock by the Government. The Government is attempting to force the Doctors to do something that Parliament just would not agree to for all the right reasons. 

JAMES: People should also be wary I guess of any GPs who try to up their fees now immediately and place the blame on this rebate freeze? Because it doesn't work that way.

JONES: Absolutely and Doctors have got to act responsibly, the overwhelming majority of them do. They know their patients well, including patients' financial circumstances, they deal with these issues every day. One of the consequences that many Doctors have pointed out to me is that effectively they will be using their more well-heeled patients to cross-subsidise the other patients. We don't think that that is a reasonable way of dealing with it all. We believe in a universal health system, it's a part of your citizenship right about being an Australian. You should be able to go to a Doctor and it's your Medicare card not your credit card that matters most.

JAMES: Thanks for joining us this morning.

JONES: Good to be with you Melinda. 

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