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Cost already deterring many from seeing GP

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Cost considerations are already deterring tens of thousands of Australians from seeing their GP, underlining fears that imposing a Medicare co-payment or axing bulk billing incentives will force hundreds of thousands to put off seeing their doctor.

An official survey has found that 4.9 per cent of adults delayed or avoided seeing the family doctor in 2013-14 because of cost, while almost 8 per cent put off seeing a medical specialist for the same reason.

The results, reported in the annual Patient experiences in Australia survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, adds weight to AMA concerns that the Federal Government’s proposed $7 co-payment for GP, pathology and medical imaging services, will cause many patients to forego timely primary care, with the likelihood that they will eventually require more complex and expensive treatment – including hospitalisation – by putting off timely treatment.

More than 27,320 people aged 15 years and over were sampled for the survey, which found that 82 per cent of Australians saw their GP in the previous year, while one and three consulted a medical specialist.

Around a fifth reported be forced to wait longer than they felt acceptable to see their GP, while a quarter said they waited too long to see their specialist.

The AMA’s concerns that the $7 co-payment could cause many to delay seeking timely treatment were echoed by a Senate Committee inquiring into the health system, which reported almost universal condemnation of the co-payment among medical experts, health providers and consumers.

In its first interim report released last week, the Senate Select Committee on Health said the “overwhelming sentiment of witnesses as that the $7 co-payment will have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of all Australians”.

It cited witnesses including Grattan Institute program director Professor Stephen Duckett, University of Technology, Sydney, academic Professor Jane Hall and Benetas policy officer Stephen Burgess that adding to the financial barriers facing people in accessing primary care would cost the health system more in the long term.

Committee Chair, Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill said the committee had heard submissions that hospital emergency departments would be log-jammed, and people would delay seeking treatment until it was too late, if the co-payment were introduced.

In its majority report, the committee said it was “deeply concerned by the substantial body of evidence it has received regarding the negative effects” of the co-payment, and recommended that it be immediately abandoned.

Adrian Rollins