Implementing the federal government’s $7 GP co-payment proposal would be disastrous for indigenous healthcare, the Australian Medical Association president says.
Associate Professor Brian Owler has been touring the Northern Territory since Monday, including visits to Alice Springs, the Tiwi Islands and Darwin, and says the GP co-payments have been the key issue raised with him.
“Everyone who knows anything about indigenous healthcare and anyone who’s been to the NT will realise it’s just impractical to suggest you’re going to be charging $7 for each GP and clinic visit and each pathology or X-ray test you order,” he told AAP on Thursday.
In its current form, the co-payment would cost remote healthcare providers up to $14 per patient, or about one-third of the cost of the consultation.
“If you charge the co-payment, they won’t come. If (service providers) forego it, you punish the practices and practitioners serving those communities, and you jeopardise healthcare funding in those regions which is something we can’t afford to do,” he said.
“We should be doing everything we can to encourage indigenous people to access healthcare, particularly those that live in remote or disadvantaged areas.”
Had the government properly consulted on the matter the AMA would have told them the measure would have a terrible impact, Mr Owler said.
“We had a policy that was developed only in context of financial and economic incentives and nothing to do with healthcare policy, and when you impose these things without reference to healthcare policy, without truly consulting with experts in the field, this is the extraordinary situation you get,” he said.
Twenty six NT indigenous health services have announced they will not implement the co-payments, at a potential cost of close to $1 million per year for a larger service, the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT says.
The co-payment as it stands has not passed the Senate and the government has flagged it may consider wider exemptions.
Mr Owler said the AMA had put forth an alternative proposal to the government and was awaiting a response.
“It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’re not making progress in terms of indigenous healthcare, and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, pointing to significant gains in life expectancy, and improved child mortality and immunisation rates.
“But there’s still a lot more that needs to be done,” he said.