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Shorten says Government trying to silence doctors

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon assured delegates to the National Conference the association is independent and not “reading from the script any political party”.

His comments followed a conference address by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who suggested the staged thaw of the Medicare rebate freeze – as outlined in the Federal Budget – was the Government’s way of offering “cash for no comment”.

“If you like, it’s the minimum they can get away with paying to keep people silent,” Mr Shorten said.

“It’s like cash for no comment.

“I believe the Government has got a calculus here. What is the minimum they can pay to make healthcare issues go away as an election point?”

The Opposition Leader insisted his comments were a swipe at the Government and not at the AMA or other medical groups.

But when asked about it in a subsequent panel session, Dr Gannon told the conference the AMA engaged with all political parties equally and was not influenced by policy announcements.

“They’re in for a surprise if they think they can keep the AMA quiet,” he said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt agreed that the AMA was independent and told reporters that if Mr Shorten was attacking the AMA it was a “vile” thing to do.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who also spoke at the conference and delivered his own veiled criticism over recent commentary around climate change, said Mr Shorten’s remarks were directed at the AMA.

“How else would you construe it?” he told the media following his address.

“Now, I think the unfreezing of the rebate is happening way too slowly. But what the AMA does in response to Government policy is a matter for them.”

The May Budget lifts the Medicare rebate freeze, which was introduced by Labor and extended when the Coalition came to office. But it does it in stages – starting this year with bulk-billing incentives for GPs, continuing with other GP specialist consultations in 2018, specialist procedures in 2019, and diagnostic imaging services in 2020.

Mr Shorten released to the conference new independent costings of the rollout, which he said amounts to $2.2 billion in Medicare cuts over four years.

He said the Parliamentary Budget Office analysis showed that by completely lifting the freeze across the board from July 1 this year it would have cost $3.2 billion.

Doing it the way the Budget outlines, costs less than $1 billion.

Shadow Health Minister Catherine King also addressed the AMA National Conference and repeated Labor’s commitment to end the Medicare rebate freeze completely and all at once.

Chris Johnson