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Budget full of pain for patients


Families face a hefty hike in their medical bills, doctors will be hit by a further Medicare rebate freeze and the states will have to make up a massive shortfall in public hospital funding as the Federal Government acts to unload many of its health costs on to patients and the states and territories.

In one of the most severe budgets in years, the Abbott Government has sliced into Commonwealth health spending, reducing its contribution to the cost of health services, tightening safety nets, axing agencies and programs and forcing patients to pick up more of the tab for their health care and medicines.

As expected, the Budget included a patient co-payment for GP services, set at $7 – offset to a large extent by a $5 cut to the Medicare rebate – and the co-payment for Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme medicines has been increased by $5 to $42.70.

Treasure Joe Hockey said that “health services have never been free to taxpayers, so patients are being asked to make a modest contribution towards their cost”.

To discourage people from dodging the GP co-payment by seeking help at the nation’s public hospitals, the states and territories will be allowed to impose a charge on people turning up to hospital emergency departments for treatment of “general practitioner-like” health problems.

While many of these measures have been the subject of speculation for weeks, the Budget also included some surprise announcements.

In an attempt to make the GP co-payment more politically palatable, the Government pledged that the money raised would be funnelled into the creation of a Medical Research Future Fund to invest in research.

In other sweeteners, it has doubled the Practice Incentives Program teaching payment, increased funding for the GP Rural Incentives Program and boosted funding for dementia research, bowel cancer screening, the headspace program and the Good Sports program.

But it also delivered a shock to the State and Territory governments by declaring it would wash its hands of responsibility for public hospital funding and leave it to the second tier of government.

AMA Vice President Professor Geoffrey Dobb said the Budget changes made it a tough time to be unwell.

“Access to quality primary care will be more difficult for many Australians,” Professor Dobb said. “Put together, the cuts and co-payments threaten fairness and equity in the health system.

“The AMA recognises the Government’s priority is to achieve a Budget surplus, but it should not be achieved by costing health services out of the reach of ordinary Australians.”

Professor Dobb said increased out-of-pocket expenses for patients when they see their GP, attend an emergency department, obtain medicine, get a pathology test or have an x-ray will make it more difficult for people to get the care they need.

“Many Australians already pay a co-payment, and there is a place for co-payments for patients with the right model – but this is not the right model,” the AMA Vice President said. “It does not have the right protections.”

But Health Minister Peter Dutton said the Government’s Budget measures would help ensure Australians continued to have affordable access to quality health care in the long-term.

Mr Dutton said the GP co-payment, in particular, would “strengthen and modernise” Medicare and help make it sustainable.

Adrian Rollins