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Co-payment faces Senate deadlock

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The Federal Government’s ambition to introduce a $7 co-payment for GP, pathology and diagnostic imaging services is faltering as opposition to the plan hardens among balance-of-power senators.

The efforts of senior Government ministers including Treasurer Joe Hockey and Health Minister Peter Dutton to use Parliament’s winter recess to lobby key crossbench senators to back the co-payment proposal have so far proven fruitless.

Billionaire miner Clive Palmer, leader of the Palmer United Party – which controls three crucial Senate votes – last week declared the Government’s co-payment plan “dead”.

“The co-payment is dead. We won’t be supporting it. It’s over, finished,” the PUP leader said, adding there would be no compromise deal with the Government to secure its passage. “We’re not going to have a co-payment of even one cent. There’ll be none. Isn’t that good?”

Other key cross bench senators, including Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan and independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, have also voiced their opposition to the co-payment. So far, only Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm has publicly backed a co-payment of some form, while both Labor and the Australian Greens remain implacably opposed to the idea.

But the Government has so far refused to concede that its proposal is in deep trouble.

Mr Dutton has insisted that key senators are much more receptive to the proposal in private than they are in public.

“People will position publicly on these issues,” he said.

“The difficulty for us is that we’re not commenting on private discussions. All I can say is that privately we’ve had productive discussions with many of the senators.”

The Government is delaying putting legislation for the co-payment to a vote in the Senate as it seeks to marshal the numbers it needs to secure passage of the controversial proposal.

Mr Dutton and other senior Government figures including Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, have suggested that there is no urgency to vote on the legislation, given that the measure is not to due to come into effect until mid-2015.

But pressure is mounting on the Government to end the uncertainty about this and other Budget measures amid warnings delays in resolving the Budget are sapping business and consumer confidence and deterring investment.

The uncertainty is also causing confusion and distress for patients, with reports that some GP clinics have been forced to send text messages to their patients to reassure them that no co-payments have yet been introduced.

 Adrian Rollins