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Federal Budget delivers – Medicare rebate freeze to be lifted

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The AMA welcomes much of the health measures in the Federal Budget and commends the Government for taking action on the Medicare rebate freeze.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said the Coalition had won back much of the goodwill it lost with its disastrous 2014 Health Budget by this time handing down a Budget with numerous positive health measures.

Dr Gannon said the staggered lifting of the freeze on Medicare patient rebates was well overdue.

“This is a monkey that has been on the back of the Coalition Government since the 2014 Budget that cut significant dollars out of health. This is the chance to correct those wrongs,” he said.

The freeze will be lifted from bulk billing incentives for GP consultations from 1 July 2017, from standard GP consultations and other specialist consultations from 1 July 2018, from procedures from 1 July 2019, and targeted diagnostic imaging services from 1 July 2020.

The lifting of the freeze on Medicare rebates will cost the Government about $1 billion.

“The AMA would have preferred to see the Medicare freeze lifted across the board from 1 July 2017, but we acknowledge that the three-stage process will provide GPs and other specialists with certainty and security about their practices, and patients can be confident that their health care will remain accessible and affordable,” Dr Gannon said.

“Lifting the Medicare rebate freeze is overdue, but we welcome it.”

Dr Gannon also described many of the health policy breakthroughs in the Budget as a direct result of AMA lobbying and the consultative approach of Health Minister Greg Hunt.

“Minister Hunt said from day one in the job that he would listen and learn from the people who work in the health system every day about what is best for patients, and he has delivered,” Dr Gannon said.

AMA advocacy has also seen, in this Budget, the reversing of proposed cuts to bulk billing incentives for diagnostic imaging and pathology services; the scrapping of proposed changes to the Medicare Safety Net that would have penalised vulnerable patients; the delaying of the introduction of the Health Care Homes trial until October to allow fine-tuning of the details; the moving to an opt-out approach for participation in the My Health Record; and recognising the importance of diagnostic imaging to clinical decision-making.

The AMA supports the Government’s measures to increase the prescribing of generic medicines, when it is safe and appropriate and discussed with the patient, and preserves doctors’ clinical and prescribing independence, with savings to be invested back into the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

“We also welcome the Government’s allocation of $350 million to help prevent suicide among war veterans; the expansion of the Supporting Leave for Living Organ Donors Program, which allows donors to claim back out-of-pocket expenses and receive up to nine weeks paid leave while recovering; measures to increase the vaccination rate; and the ban on gambling ads during live sporting broadcasts before 8.30pm,” Dr Gannon said.

Mr Hunt said the Budget delivered on the Government’s commitment to guarantee Medicare and ensure Australia’s health system continues to be one of the best in the world.

“It ensures the essential healthcare services Australians rely on,” the Minister said.

“The 2017-18 Budget includes a $10 billion package to invest in Australia’s health system and the health of Australians.

“The Government will establish a Medicare Guarantee Fund from 1 July 2017 to secure the ongoing funding of the Medicare Benefits Schedule and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, guaranteeing Australians’ access to these services and affordable medicines into the future.”

The Medicare levy will rise by 0.5 percentage points in two years’ time, to help close the funding gap for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

“This measure will collect $8.2 billion over four years for the NDIS,” said Treasurer Scott Morrison when handing down his Budget.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said the Government had failed the Medicare test because it had delayed reversing cuts to Medicare for three years.

“Budgets are about choices and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made his choices tonight,” Mr Bowen said.

“He has chosen multinationals over Medicare. He has chosen big business over battlers.” 

Dr Gannon said the Health Budget effectively ends an era of poor co-payment and Medicare freeze policies, and creates an environment for informed and genuine debate about other unfinished business in the health portfolio.

“We now need to shift our attention to gaining positive outcomes for public hospitals, prevention, Indigenous health, mental health, aged care, rural health, private health insurance, palliative care, and the medical workforce,” he said.

“The thaw in the freeze is the beginning, not the end.”

Chris Johnson