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BEACH reports throw sand into Government cost claims

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General practice delivers the best value for money in the Australian health system.

If there was ever any lingering doubt of this, it has been dispelled by the latest reports from the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) project,  General practice activity in Australia 2013–14 and A decade of general practice activity 2004–05 to 2013–14, which together show GPs are treating an increasing number of patients with complex and chronic conditions at a fraction of the cost of other areas of the health system.

GPs instinctively know that they are busier than ever before, and the BEACH reports back these anecdotal observations up with hard evidence, showing that between 2004-05 and 2013-14, general practices:

  • managed 68 million extra problems (a 48 per cent increase), of which 24 million were chronic conditions such as diabetes and depression;
  • had 35 million extra GP-patient encounters (a 36 per cent increase), 17 million of which were with patients aged 65 years or older (a 67 per cent increase);
  • contributed 10 million extra hours of GP clinical time (a 43 per cent increase); and
  • performed 10 million extra procedural treatments (a 66 per cent increase).

Importantly, the reports also showed that if such services were performed in other areas of the health system, they would cost both the Government and patients much more than they do when provided by GPs.

For example, GP services in a public hospital Emergency Department would cost between $396 and $599 each, compared with the average cost of a GP visit of around $50.

To justify its extreme health Budget measures, the Government has claimed that health spending is out of control.

This has been clearly demonstrated not to be the case as our President has consistently highlighted.  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show total national spending on health grew by a record low 1.5 per cent in real terms in 2012-13, underpinned by a big 2.4 per cent fall in Federal Government funding. Health’s share of the Commonwealth Budget has fallen in the last seven years from more than 18 per cent to 16.1 per cent.

These numbers clearly demonstrate that there are simply no grounds for taking even more money out of health.

Indeed, if the Government wants to get more bang for its health dollar, the numbers clearly show it should be directing more funds to general practice.

By investing in primary care, the Government would support one of the most efficient parts of the health system and help ensure the gains keep coming.

Certainly, the last thing the Government should be doing right now is strangling general practice with a $5 cut to the Medicare patient rebate and imposing an unfair co-payment model that will hurt the most disadvantaged in the community and discourage preventive health care and chronic disease management.

After all, these are the very things that will help curb the growth of health costs.

Discouraging GP visits will increase overall health costs by making people delay access to vital health care. General practice is worth greater investment, not less.

Instead, the Government’s proposed co-payment model will make life even harder for the nation’s GPs.

A report commission by the AMA, The Red Tape Burden of the Proposed Medical Services Co-payment, found that the extra costs of administering the co-payment (and the additional bad debts that would arise) would totally erode the $2 “windfall” the Government said general practices would receive under its plan.

Add in the proposed $5 cut to the Medicare rebate, and many practices may become financially unviable and have to close.

Such an outcome just doesn’t make sense if the Government truly wants to control its health spending.

It is time the Government realises that, if it is serious about saving money and ensuring the sustainability of the health care system, then actually investing in general practice is the key, and must be given the highest priority.