Fees of $6 for every GP visit have been proposed as a means of reducing Australia’s growing healthcare costs. Health Minister Peter Dutton has warned that the healthcare system is heading for an “unsustainable” situation unless action is taken to reduce health-related expenditure, with Medicare costs set to spiral from $18 billion to $21 billion from last financial year to next. Former health advisor, Terry Barnes, has claimed that charging patients for visiting their GP would save $750 million over four years by discouraging ‘unnecessary’ visits for minor illnesses. The Australian Medical Association has raised concerns that those who genuinely need to see a doctor will avoid doing so. This has fuelled fears that introducing GP fees would encourage a tiered healthcare system in which income determines the level of care on offer.
Why It Has Been Proposed
Mr Dutton has repeatedly reiterated his belief that the healthcare system is fast approaching “unsustainable” levels. At present, the Medicare levy does not even remotely cover Medicare spending. The $10 billion generated through this is little more than half of the cost. Introducing fees for GP visits has been put forward as a means of reducing Medicare costs, which are increasing significantly year-on-year. For the next financial year, Medicare spending is set to rise another $3 billion to $21 billion. As well as reducing the Medicare expenditure bill, decreasing the number of “unnecessary” visits to the GP for minor ailments is also designed to reduce the pressure on doctors, who could then dedicate more time to patients who genuinely need to see them.
What Would Happen
The move would involve bulk billing patients $6 for each GP visit. Pensioners and concessional cardholders would be exempt from these charges. Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, however, has recently spoken out to say, “We have no plans for co-payments” and has described this as, “merely scaremongering on Labor’s part”. Denying all claims that this suggestion has reached the cabinet although it’s evident in recent discussions that this suggestion is being taken into consideration.
Who Will Be Affected
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has expressed fears that sick people may choose not to visit a doctor due to the costs involved. This reluctance could then have significant repercussions on the public healthcare system by increasing the pressure on hospital emergency departments. If people wait to get treatment, emergency departments could become overloaded with patients who have put off going to their GP until their health concerns escalate. In the long run, it is feared that this will lead to Australians becoming less healthy. Chronic conditions in particular could become mismanaged, which would further increase healthcare costs over time. Health inequality expert, Professor John Glover, has warned that the proposed fees could discourage poorer households from seeking medical help.
The 2010 Bureau of Statistics indicates that this is already true, with those in less affluent areas being three times more likely to put off seeing a GP due to costs compared to those who living in richer neighbourhoods. Concerns are being raised that the GP fee implementation will result in a two-tiered system of healthcare where poorer patients receive inferior care. With the average Australian needing to visit their GP between five and eight times per year according to the National Health Performance Authority Report, families with several children could find themselves paying well over $100 more per year for health care. GPs would also be affected by the changes. Medicaid Medical Clinic director, Dr Carl Grace has voiced his concern that the Medicare rebate to GPs will be cut and that co-payments will be need to be secured to redress the balance. This is expected to generate a significant backlash from GPs if it comes into practice. With Medicare expenditure increasing by the year, charging patients $6 for visiting their GP will have a positive impact on reducing costs.
It has been claimed that the move will decrease the number of patients seeing GPs for minor problems, leading to savings of $750 million over four years. Health experts have warned that this may be a false economy if patients put off going to the doctor and add to growing pressure on hospital emergency departments for what could have been treated by a GP visit. The GP fee won’t affect your monthly health insurance premiums, but it’s worth noting that discussions have taken place to potentially allow Health Funds to include this cost within selected policies. This means that there will be no impact to you if you’re covered by the right health insurance policy.