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We can do a deal on co-payment: Dutton

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Health Minister Peter Dutton is optimistic about striking a deal with independent Senators to have his controversial plan for a patient co-payment passed by Parliament.

While refusing to disclose details of his discussions with key cross-bench Senators, Mr Dutton told reporters today that “there is going to be the ability for us to do a deal on the co-payment”.

“If we want to make our health system sustainable we have to make tough decisions,” the Minister said. “We have to get this right, and I’m confident that we can negotiate a situation which makes Medicare more sustainable.”

The ambiguous statement leaves open the possibility the Government might accept changes to its co-payment model to secure the support it needs to have the measure become law.

But the discussions may also involve trade-offs that could lead to even deeper cuts to spending on primary care and dumping more health costs onto individuals and families.

Mr Dutton told reporters that the AMA, like the Government, “want[s] to see a sustainable Medicare”.

But the AMA has repeatedly said that although it does not oppose co-payments in principle, it rejects the Government’s model.

And AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said figures produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare last week showed there was no basis to Mr Dutton’s claims the co-payment was needed because Government spending on health was growing unsustainably.

The AIHW reported that total health expenditure grew by a record low 1.5 per cent in real terms in 2012-13, underpinned by a 2.4 per cent slump in Commonwealth Government spending.

A/Professor Olwer said the figures “really make a mockery of the fact that the Government’s been claiming that health care expenditure is out of control”.

“The Government’s used this as a narrative in the lead-up to its Federal Budget, saying that health care expenditure is out of control, and it’s used that to justify the introduction of the GP co-payment. Now, there is no justification for a GP co-payment, let alone the $5 [cut] for the patient’s Medicare rebate.”

There is mounting concern about the sort of deals the Government might strike with independent Senators to achieve health savings.

A/Professor Owler warned that even if the Government’s plan for a $7 co-payment for GP, pathology and diagnostic imaging services was knocked back by the Senate, it might still receive backing for its $5 cut to Medicare rebates, leaving both patients and doctors worse off.

“What we are concerned about is the potential trade-offs and deals that might be done that might mean that we do not have a co-payment, but are still stuck with a cut to the Medicare rebate,” A/Professor Owler said. “That would mean patients are worse off [and] that there is no support for GPs or investment in general practice.”

Mr Dutton said he was “working behind the scenes with the independent Senators”.

Adrian Rollins