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Health Department admits truth on bulk billing

Health Department admits truth on bulk billing - Featured Image

Federal Government claims that bulk billing rates are at a record high have been undermined by the Health Department’s admission that less than two-thirds of patients have all their GP visits bulk billed.

In an answer to a question on notice on 2 December, the Department confirmed that just 64.7 per cent of patients had all of their GP visits bulk billed in 2015-16 and almost 20 per cent were left out-of-pocket up to half the time they saw their family doctor.

The results, as first reported by Medical Observer, belie claims by Health Minister Sussan Ley that bulk billing remains at record high levels.

Last month the Minister seized on official figures showing that 85.4 per cent of GP services were bulk billed in the September quarter, up almost 1 percentage point from a year earlier, as evidence of the Government’s investment in Medicare.

But the figure is a measure of the number of services bulk billed, as opposed to the number of doctor visits, which many consider to be a more meaningful indicator of patient costs and access to care.

Related: Bulk-billing indicator no longer useful

The AMA has warned that the Government’s Medicare rebate freeze is putting medical practices under intense financial pressure, forcing them to cut back on bulk billing or abandon it all together, increasing costs for their patients and driving concerns that people who are ill will increasingly put off seeing their doctor, putting their health at risk and increasing the cost of treatment when they eventually seek care.

These concerns have been leant weight by a separate answer to a question on notice in which the Department confirmed the average patient contribution jumped 5.4 per cent in inflated-adjusted terms in 2015-16, the biggest increase in three years.

In the past decade, Government figures show, patient out-of-pocket costs have grown by an average 5.6 per cent a year in real terms, and AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said they were now above the average among advanced economies.

In the September quarter alone, out-of-pocket costs surged 4.5 per cent to reach an average of $34.61.

Dr Gannon said this showed that the Medicare rebate was falling increasingly behind the real cost of providing health care, and underlined the inadequacy of the Government’s investment in primary health care.

The Government has frozen Medicare rebates until 2020, but is coming under mounting pressure from doctors and patients to scrap the measure and substantially boost its contribution to the cost of care.

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