Doctors are calling for the bulk-billing Medicare scheme to be overhauled, as general practices struggle to stay open in the face of soaring costs.
The gap between a general practitioner’s fee and the Medicare refund paid to the practices has more than tripled in the past 10 years, leaving many GPs with no option but to charge patients.
Australian Medical Association vice-president Danielle McMullen told the Today show that doctors couldn’t afford to continue to operate under the bulk-billing model.
“We’ve seen over the time that Medicare has existed, it used to be that the Medicare rebate for a usual consult covered costs of providing that care. We now find that Medicare rebate covers less than half of the cost of running a consultation,” she explained.
“GPs across the country are just saying that enough is enough. We just can’t afford to keep our doors open and work under those bulk-billing arrangements.”
AMA figures show two-thirds of GP patients are bulk billed every time they visit their doctor, which means millions of Australians will be affected by the move to implement fees.
As the cost-of-living crisis continues to increase pressure on Australians, the average out-of-patient-pocket costs for general practitioner services have increased 50 per cent in the last decade.
Earlier this month, Australian Society of General Practice president Chris Irwin said up to 60 per cent of general practices that provided bulk billing were looking to implement fees.
“It’s extremely hard for GPs because they just want to serve the community and … protect the most vulnerable,” he said.
“But we’re just getting to the point that if something doesn’t change, there literally won’t be general practice in 10 years.”
Dr McMullen agreed, noting doctors do their best to make sure vulnerable patients have minimal out-of-pocket costs.
“At the end of the day they’re also small businesses and we are urging the government to take heed of that and to work with us to make sure general practice remains sustainable so we can take care of the patients across the country,” she said.
“It’s really about making sure that the patients … have their health managed comprehensively and capably and plenty of time with their GP.”
Prior to this year’s election, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese vowed to create a “strengthening Medicare fund” to make it cheaper and easier for Australians to see a GP.
The promise would cost $250m each year from 2023-24 over three years and aims to improve access to healthcare and improve management of complex health conditions.
Dr McMullen said it was “encouraging” that a taskforce would be working together by the end of the year to create solutions.
“It won’t fix general practice and the challenges facing us overnight,” she said.
Doctors are adamant that something needs to be done in the short term to ensure equitable access to healthcare.
“(In the meantime) we’re hopeful there will be steps taken to make sure we modernise Medicare and make it easier to see your GP and get the time with them you need to manage your health,” Dr McMullen said.
The AMA vice-president said the issues facing GPs were having an impact on the future of the profession, with only 15 per cent of medical graduates choosing that career path.
The country’s shortage of doctors is so dire that travelling GPs are being offered as much as $3500 a day to work in regional areas across the country.