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Ley refuses to set rebate freeze end date

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Health Minister Sussan Ley has dumped on hopes of an imminent end to the Medicare rebate freeze, warning that it will not be lifted until there is an improvement in the Federal Government’s finances.

Talking down the prospects of financial relief for hard-pressed medical practices any time soon, Ms Ley refused to set a date for an end to the policy, and told ABC radio’s AM program that “we cannot lift the pause…any earlier than our financial circumstances permit”.

The Minister said any decisions made about the freeze would be made in the context of Budget discussions.

“I’m a Minister who signs up to the agenda of a Government that leads Budget repair and strong, stable economic management, so I’m absolutely not walking from our responsibilities,” she told Sky News. “These are decisions that are made through the MYEFO [Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook] and Budget process, and I’m not going to forecast when or what they might be.”

The Government is due to release the 2016-17 MYEFO before the end of the year, most likely early December.

Ms Ley backed away from comments she made during the Federal election that she had been blocked from ending the freeze by her senior Treasury and Finance colleagues.

In May, Ms Ley told ABC radio that: “I’ve said to doctors I want that freeze lifted as soon as possible but I appreciate that Finance and Treasury aren’t allowing me to do it just yet.”

But when ABC reporter Kim Landers said to the Minister today that, “you’ve previously said that you’ve wanted to lift it, but you were blocked by Treasury,” Ms Ley denied it.

“That’s not what I’ve said. What I’ve said is: as a responsible Minister in a Government that needs to undertake budget repair, I recognise that we cannot lift the pause that was introduced by Labor any earlier than our financial circumstances permit,” the Health Minister said.

The exchange came amid mounting warnings from the AMA and others that the rebate freeze is pushing medical practices to the financial brink, forcing many to abandon bulk billing and raising the prospect that patients will be charged up to $25 in out-of-pocket costs.

Ms Ley defended the rebate freeze as the right policy for the times, and said bulk billing rates had “never been higher”.

The Minister’s declaration, which is based on figures measuring the number of Medicare services performed rather than GP consults, has been disputed by those who claim that the real figure is closer to 69 per cent.

Regardless, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon expressed disbelief the rebate freeze would still be in place by the time of the next election in late 2019.

“I would be gobsmacked if the Government took an ongoing freeze to the next election,” the AMA President said following a meeting with Ms Ley earlier this year. “They got the scare of their life on health, and that was probably the policy which hurt them the most.”

Ms Ley said that she wanted the freeze to end “as soon as possible”, but refused to nominate an end date.

“I’m sure that others in the Cabinet and the Parliament want that day to be as soon as possible,” the Minister said. “But we also recognise our responsibilities in terms of our credit rating, in terms of the national debt, in terms of, as I said, the economic circumstances that Labor left us with.”

Adrian Rollins