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Rebate freeze ‘must go’: Gannon

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New AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has declared that the Medicare rebate freeze is “unfair…and wrong”, and must be scrapped.

In his first public statement following his election at the AMA National Conference, Dr Gannon reaffirmed the peak medical organisation’s commitment to overturning the freeze, which he warned could force some doctors to abandon bulk billing and begin charging patients up to $25 a visit.

“GPs are at breaking point. They can’t take too many more cuts,” he said. “I would not be surprised if those practices that move away from bulk billing, and decide to invest in the infrastructure required to collect the fees, turn around and collect something like a fee between $15 and $25”.

The Federal Government’s decision to extend the current freeze on Medicare rebates an extra two years to 2020 has provoked outrage among GPs and the broader medical profession. The AMA has mounted a nationwide campaign against the policy, which is also the target of television ads by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners that warn patients the freeze means “you will pay more”.

Dr Gannon has assumed the presidency in a highly politically-charged environment, with the nation embroiled in one of the longest Federal Election campaigns in decades. Opinion polls have the two major parties locked in a close contest.

THe Western Australian obstetrician has held discussions with Health Minster Sussan Ley, Shadow Minister Catherine King and Greens leader Richard Di Natale, and promised to “pursue a consultative style [to] try and find constructive ways forward”.

He said there was an opportunity to improve the AMA’s relationship with Ms Ley, and said the AMA should “always try and be constructive when it criticises policy of governments or opposition to come up with alternatives”.

Dr Gannon warned that, “when you criticise Government on any area of policy you need to realise that there might be a cost in that area or in other areas of your agenda”.

But he said the Medicare rebate freeze had to go, and reiterated the AMA’s support for Labor’s policy to end the freeze. Both Labor and the Greens have promised $2.4 billion to reinstate rebate indexation from 1 January next year.

Dr Gannon called for the Coalition to “change tack” on the freeze.

“Unravelling the freeze is so important,” he said, adding that such a move should be the start of a broader discussion about improved support for general practice.

“Successive governments have under-invested in quality general practice. That is the cornerstone of the health system,” he said. “High quality primary care reduces the need for more expensive hospital admissions. Unravelling the freeze is not a solution to the underfunding of general practice. We need to do so much better.”

The AMA President also attacked Commonwealth cuts to public hospital funding.

“I don’t think that there’s room to cut hospital funding; in fact, quite the opposite,” Dr Gannon said.

While the AMA needed to be “responsible” in calling for greater health funding, he lamented that both the Federal and State tiers of government had failed to comprehend the rise in hospital costs stemming from the ageing population and health epidemics like obesity and drug use.

But Dr Gannon said his advocacy would not be limited to general practice and hospital, and the AMA’s “very strong” platform on social issues would continue under his leadership.

He said he was committed to “continuing the AMA’s long history in trying to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians”, and also made particular mention of mental health and “speaking up for people who can’t speak for themselves”.

Adrian Rollins