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Pap smear scare a warning

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As the Federal Government embarks on an election year, Health Minister Sussan Ley has had a sobering lesson in the power of social media.

When a story was posted on website Mamamia early on 6 January claiming women would be charged $30 for a pap smear because of the Federal Government’s cuts to pathology and diagnostic imaging bulk billing incentives, it sparked a storm of protest.

A petition on change.org protesting the cuts rapidly gained momentum. By late that morning, it had garnered more than 10,000 signatures.

It was not until almost midday that Ms Ley responded, going on Twitter to argue that there had been “no cut 2 $ value of Medicare Rebate YOU receive 4 pap smear/test or your access to it as falsely claimed 2day”.

But by then the horse had well and truly bolted.

The message that women would for the first time likely to be charged out-of-pocket expenses for a pap smear had spread far and wide through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and was being picked up by mainstream news outlets.

As the day wore on, the Minster posted more tweets trying to calm the storm, and her office issued a statement attacking what it said were misleading claims.

In it, her spokesperson said there had been no shift in the cost of having a pap smear or the Medicare rebate.

The sole change, the spokesperson said, was to scrap the incentive paid directly to pathology providers, worth between $1.40 and $3.40 for each pap smear.

“It is therefore not part of the patient’s Medicare rebate, as some have tried to claim,” the spokesperson said, and Ms Ley has insisted that competitive pressures in the pathology industry mean providers will have to absorb the cost rather than pass it on to patients – an assertion the sector disputes.

The Government has struggled to gain traction on the issue.

Its complex and nuanced argument has been drowned out by the simple message being broadcast far and wide on social media that women will be charged for a pap smear.

The scale of the Government’s problem has been laid bare by the fact that, despite numerous media interviews and statements rebutting the $30 pap smear claim, by mid-Friday the petition was closing in on 200,000 signatures.

The episode is a salutary lesson for the Minister and the Government in the perils of blindsiding health groups and the public with unheralded cuts and changes.

There was no consultation prior to the announcement in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook on 15 December of $650 million cuts to the bulk billing incentive for pathology and diagnostic imaging services, and little subsequent detail about the measure, leaving a virtual vacuum in which confusion and apprehension could quickly develop.

In the febrile atmosphere of a Federal Election, where the pressure for instant judgement calls and responses is intense, issues can quickly spiral out of any political control.

It could be a very long year for the Government unless it changes tack on how it does business.

Adrian Rollins

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