LAURA JAYES: Australians are now paying more to see doctors, as the Government's GP freeze is taking its toll on bulk-billing rates. New figures today released from the Department of Health show the bulk-billing rate for non-referred GP services fell to 84.1 per cent in the September quarter, down from 84.6 per cent in the June quarter. Now, it's not a huge jump but does it show a trend in the wrong direction?
Joining me now live from Melbourne is the Vice President of the Australian Medical Association, Tony Bartone. Tony, thank you so much for your time. Should we be worrying about this, because it's only 0.5 per cent nation wide?
TONY BARTONE: Good evening, Laura. The numbers are early and they are an early indication of what potentially what could be a sign that, yes, things are on the move. The MBS freeze has finally bitten to a point where doctors and practices have to make a decision to actually reduce the rate of bulk-billing available, and actually institute higher fees to cover the rising costs which they've really absorbed over many years now.
LAURA JAYES: So are you pointing to this as some proof that doctors cannot absorb the costs, and now they're having to pass it on to patients?
TONY BARTONE: We've been saying consistently now, for as long as the freeze has been in place, the ability to absorb this freeze in the face of increasing costs – costs which continue to mount day in, day out in running a quality practice, to provide quality health care to Australians - cannot be sustained. And there would be a time where things may reach a point where doctors have to make the inevitable decision and really vote in favour of the viability and sustainability of a quality health care system to ensure their patients still get access to world class health care.
LAURA JAYES: Do you have any idea what this added cost is? Is it a few dollars? Any idea what the average is?
TONY BARTONE: What we know from the data released today is that patients' out-of-pocket costs are rising faster than inflation, and that is because the MBS patient rebates have not been keeping pace with anything. They've been frozen, and basically that means that patients are paying more out of their own pocket when they're not being bulk-billed, and so that out-of-pocket expense is rising faster than inflation. We're one of the world's highest out of pockets. I mean… when it comes to out-of-pockets, we're one of the world's leaders in that respect, and that's not really a good sign when it comes to affordability and accessibility in the future.
LAURA JAYES: But Tony, when you look at these figures, people haven't actually stopped going to the doctor, people are still seeking treatment. So this is not acting as a deterrent to seeking medical care.
TONY BARTONE: And this is absolutely correct. Doctors provide an essential service, and patients need to continue consulting their doctors, for whatever reason that might be, and that will continue. But the ability to provide a bulk-billing solution is now really questionable going into the future with this ongoing freeze, and of course patients will have to make a decision to- well you know, to balance their own budget, and what will they go without to ensure that they continue to access the care that they need, an essential care, an essential service in the 21st century.
LAURA JAYES: Okay, what about if I look at the breakdown here? Australia-wide, 0.5 per cent, but in Tasmania there's quite a significant leap there – well, it's 2.4 per cent, larger than any of the other States, the next one is 0.7 per cent in Queensland. Does that say anything to you about the geography, about Tasmania in particular?
TONY BARTONE: Every doctor in every practice in the country will be doing the same thing at the moment, will be looking at their future viability and their ability to provide that solution that allows them to continue to bulk-bill. Now, in rural or regional centres, in Tasmania or in Queensland, in Melbourne or in Sydney, in Perth, everyone's going to be doing the same exercise. And there's a number of factors that come into play, and that is really, at the end of the day, a budgetary exercise. Every family does it, every business does it, and the practices are not immune to having to do that same budget.
LAURA JAYES: Tony, just finally and quickly, have you had any indication from the Government that they are willing to at least set a timeline to unfreezing this GP rebate?
TONY BARTONE: We're in continual discussions with the Government, they're aware of our position, we make it loud and clear and they, I'm sure, would understand that they are playing with potentially a very difficult situation, where they're placing more patients with the possibility of having to face higher costs going forward.
LAURA JAYES: We will see. Tony Bartone, thanks so much for your time.
TONY BARTONE: Thank you.
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