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Patient costs to rise despite no co-payment: health groups

Community and professional health groups have warned that despite the axing of the proposed GP co-payment, the remaining freeze on MBS rebates will still have a negative effect on primary healthcare.

In announcing the government’s decision to abandon the policy under which adults without concession cards would have made a $5 co-payment for GP consultations, the federal health minister, Sussan Ley, conceded that the plan did “not have broad support”.

“The measure, including the proposed $5 reduction to the Medicare rebate, will therefore no longer proceed and has been taken off the table,” she said, confirming that the government would “be proceeding with its pause on indexation of Medicare rebates for GP and non-GP items whilst we work with stakeholders to develop future policies”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that the co-payment policy was “dead, buried and cremated”. However, when Ley was questioned, she appeared to leave the door open to some form of “price signal”, saying that it’s “good policy… to make sure that, number one, people value the service they get from doctors”.

“It is a valuable service and it is underpinned by strong support from government … They make that modest contribution according to their capacity to pay, and those who can pay a bit more are asked to pay a bit more.”

Responding to the announcement in a joint statement, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), Australian Health Care Reform Alliance (AHCRA) and Australian Council of Social Service (ACSS) warned that the MBS rebate freeze would probably force GPs to raise fees as the value of Medicare payments fell further behind CPI.

“Our grouping of community, consumer and health groups calls on the government to end this now, rather than in 2018,” AHCRA chair Tony McBride said.

The warning was echoed by Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) vice-president Dr Morton Rawlin who said the freeze on rebates would result in doctors’ rising costs being passed on to patients in the form of higher gap fees.

McBride urged Ley to work with stakeholders to “develop a process of consultation and development to create a longer-term set of feasible and sustainable options for funding healthcare, especially primary healthcare that is efficient, but also reflects Australians’ values and does not impinge on the people’s health”.

Meanwhile, the ANMF – which had fought hard against the government’s planned co-payment – once again said the minister had continually refused to meet with its representatives.

“The government must commit to ceasing its attacks on universal healthcare and outline how it will work with the ANMF and other health groups, through genuine consultation, to strengthen our public health system,” ANMF federal secretary Lee Thomas said.

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