Nurses and doctors have welcomed a government pledge for greater consultation with the health professions following the Coalition’s backdown on its controversial plans to slash rebates for shorter GP consultations.
From next week, a scheduled change to standard, time-based GP Medicare Benefits Schedule items would have meant the $37.05 rebate for a level B consultation would be paid only for consultations lasting at least 10 minutes. The current descriptor states that the consultation must be less than 20 minutes long but includes no minimum time constraint.
With the Senate poised to dismantle the change next month, however, and in the face of ongoing opposition from health groups such as the AMA and ANMF, the health minister, Sussan Ley, announced this afternoon the government would drop the plan.
Whilst Ley said the government remained committed to reducing so-called six-minute medicine – which she said existing rebate structures encouraged – she also said she had “become aware of significant concerns and unintended consequences of changes to Medicare rebates scheduled to begin on Monday, January 19th”.
She also confirmed the government would continue to pursue a means of creating a “price signal” to Australians regarding the cost of GP care.
“The changes to level A and B Medicare consultation items will not commence on Monday as planned. The government is taking them off the table,” she told media. “I am announcing today my strong commitment to undertake wide-ranging consultation on the ground with doctors and the community across the country in order to come up with sensible options in order to deliver appropriate Medicare reform.
“I want to make it clear that in my consultations I will be guided by these four principles: protecting Medicare for the long term; ensuring bulk billing remains for vulnerable and concessional patients; maintaining our high-quality care and treatment for all Australians; and a price signal of a modest co-payment into the health system for those who have the capacity to pay.”
ANMF acting federal secretary Annie Butler welcomed the announcement and said that whilst MBS reform was important for the future sustainability of the health system, the government’s policy and its approach had been poor.
“They did not ask anybody about doing this … So the [changes to level B rebates] that were slipped in as an idea just before Christmas were not discussed with any health groups – not even the AMA,” she said. “And now the government has bowed to the pressure and stopped it but they still remain committed to what was always a part of their plan from last year's budget – the $5 cut to the rebate in all the MBS items and, as well, the existing freeze on MBS indexation.
“We remain deeply opposed to the cuts in the rebate as well as any mandatory co-payment of any type.”
AMA Council of General Practice chair Dr Brian Morton said that whilst he had been left feeling pessimistic and cynical following what he said was a government track record of failing to consult expert stakeholders adequately, he hoped the new health minister would take a new approach.
“We have a government that hopefully does not want to be a one-term government – so it is imperative that they consult and talk about real reform,” he said.
Morton said the AMA would continue to fight against the $5 cut set to affect Medicare rebates from July this year, whilst also calling on Ley to remove the freeze on MBS indexation.
Listen below for the Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association's response to the government's announcement:[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/186270281?secret_token=s-bDBkj" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /] Do you have an idea for a story?
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