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Govt wants kids to have cut-price health checks

The Federal Government wants children to have cut-price health checks after confirming it would rip almost $145 million out of general practice by abolishing a Medicare program that last year provided comprehensive pre-school health assessments for 154,000 children.

But Health Minister Sussan Ley said parents would still be able to get their GP to conduct a similar Medicare-funded health check of their child, though at a fraction of the cost to the taxpayer.

The Minister was forced to make the clarification after an announcement in the Federal Budget that $144.6 million would be taken out of general practice over the next four years by “removing the current duplication” Medicare-funded health checks and child health assessments provided by the states and territories.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler voiced concern about the cut, saying it was “very unclear” whether or not there was duplication occurring.

The measure was also heavily criticised by health groups angered by what appeared to be a decision to axe comprehensive health checks for children aged three to five years, introduced by the former Labor Government in 2008.

But Ms Ley rushed to assure parents that they could still get Medicare-funded health checks for their children.

“Parents needing to access the pre-school health check for their child in order to access income support will still be able to do so through a GP or the various state-based nurse infant and children checks, as is currently the case,” the Minister said. “The only change in the Budget is to the Medicare items GPs can bill taxpayers and patients for undertaking the check.”

The Government has moved to scrap Labor’s “Healthy Kids Check”, which costs Medicare $268.80 per visit, and instead allow GPs to bill for the check as a standard GP item costing $105.55 for an equivalent amount of time.

“Instead of GPs billing a special Medicare item worth hundreds of dollars per visit, they will instead be able to deliver the pre-school health check for three- and four-year-olds through a standard GP item worth about half that,” Ms Ley said.

The Government said an increase in the number of people using the Healthy Kids Check in recent years had sent the cost spiralling.

It reported that the number of assessments had jumped from 40,031 in 2008-09 to 153,725 last financial year, driving the annual cost from $1.8 million to $20 million.

While lamenting the cost of the program, Ms Ley simultaneously criticised it for not being comprehensive enough.

“Currently, only half of Australia’s 300,000-plus four-year-olds have accessed a pre-school health check at the more expensive billing rates,” the Minister said, adding there was no evidence show Labor’s program provided health checks superior to standard GP and state infant check services.

But a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia last year did not support this conclusion.

It found the program was effective in detecting problems with speech, toileting, hearing, vision and behaviour in about 20 per cent of children, and directly led to changes in the clinical management of between 3 and 11 per cent of such children.

The study’s authors said their results suggested “GPs are identifying important child health concerns during the Healthy Kids Checks, using appropriate clinical judgement for the management of some conditions, and referring when concerned”.

They added that GPs were also using the checks as an opportunity to identify other health problems.

The authors admitted to having no knowledge of the cost-effectiveness of the program, “although, given that its timing coincides with vaccination at four years of age, the incremental cost is likely small”. 

It followed a study published in the MJA in 2010 which found that although the evidence behind the Healthy Kids Check at that stage was “not compelling”, it had the potential to play an important role in monitoring child development by filling a gap between maternal and child health nurse screening and examinations of selected children by school nursing services.

Adrian Rollins