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Patient charges rising fast

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Patient out-of-pocket costs have surged and are now growing at their fastest pace in four years as general practices react to the financial squeeze from frozen Medicare rebates and rising running costs.

While the Federal Government has trumpeted official figures showing the proportion of GP services being bulk billed has risen to a record high of 85.1 per cent, the statistics also indicated that those patients that are being charged a fee are paying more.

Medicare data show that average out-of-pocket costs reached $34.25 last financial year, up 6.5 per cent from 2014-15 – the fastest pace of growth since 2011-12 and well above the rate of inflation.

The increase in patient charges follows warnings from AMA President Dr Michael Gannon that many general practices were “now at breaking point” because of the Medicare rebate freeze, cuts to incentive payments and reduced mental health funding.

“Many patients who are currently bulk billed will face out-of-pocket costs well over $20,” Dr Gannon said.

Related: Rebate freeze ‘must go’: Gannon

Hopes that the Turnbull Government, stung by voters over health policy, might move the scrap the rebate freeze are fading, heightening concerns that hard-pressed medical practices will have little choice but to abandon or cut back on bulk billing and increase charges for those patients judged to be able to pay a fee.

But instead, the Government has used the high incidence of bulk billing to argue its policies are sustainable.

Health Minister Sussan Ley seized on the increase in the bulk billing rate, claiming it was “good news for Australians”.

Ms Ley said the figures showed 123 million GP services were fully funded by the Government last financial year, and put the lie to Labor claims that the Government was anti-Medicare.

“These figure expose the blatant and remorseless Mediscare lies Labor have been telling the Australian public over the last 12 months,” Ms Ley said. “There’s no doubt we still have work to do, but Australians should tale assurance from the fact no Government has invested more into Medicare than the Turnbull Government.”

Related: Why doctors will stop bulk billing

But Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said the figures seized on by the Government were misleading because they focused solely the number of services that were bulk billed, rather than the number of patients, and ignored the rise in out-of-pocket costs.

Ms King said that as the rebate freeze has continued, a growing number of practices were abandoning bulk billing, including on Magnetic Island and in Hobart.

“Australians know that Malcolm Turnbull’s six-year freeze on Medicare rebates is driving bulk billing down and out-of-pocket costs up,” Ms King said. “The Government’s insistence otherwise only shows how out of touch they are.”

In his 17 August speech to the National Press Club, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon reiterated the AMA’s opposition to the rebate freeze, which he warned was undermining general practice, which was one of the key strengths of the nation’s health system.

“General practice has been under sustained pressure for years,” Dr Gannon said. “GPs have been treated poorly by both Coalition and Labor governments.”

The AMA President said that the ageing population and the growing burden of chronic and complex disease meant GPs were seeing more patients than ever before – an extra 42 million services in the past decade.

Despite this growth in demand, Government support for GPs was in decline.

“GPs are caught in a diabolical squeeze,” Dr Gannon said. “They are caring for increasingly sick patients while the Government tightens the financial screws in the name of budget repair.”

“GPs are now at breaking point. Many patients who are currently bulk billed will face out-of-pocket costs well over $20,” he warned.

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