The Federal Government has rejected calls from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) to overturn its decision to extend the Medicare rebates freeze until 2020.
Under the policy, which was introduced by the Abbott government in 2014, Medicare payments made to doctors would not increase with inflation.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners criticised the move on day one of the election campaign, calling on its 30,000 members to put up posters in waiting rooms and speak to patients about lobbying their MPs.
The AMA today joined them by launching a campaign against the measures, saying doctors would be forced to pass on costs to their patients through new or higher co-payments.
Association president Professor Brian Owler described the Government’s budget-night announcement to extend the freeze as a “body blow to patients and medical practices”.
He said young families and low-income earners would be among the worst-hit under the measures.
“We know that there’s good evidence to say some people will not see their doctor, that they will defer having treatment,” Professor Owler said.
“It’s also more likely that they will end up in hospital needing more expensive hospital treatment.”
Government injecting funds into public hospitals: Frydenberg
Professor Owler said patients would face higher costs on “every step of their healthcare journey”, including GP visits, specialist consultations, blood texts and X-rays.
“It affects all medical specialties, including pathology and radiology, which are already reeling from the cuts to bulk-billing incentives,” he said.
But Federal Government frontbencher Josh Frydenberg said the Turnbull Government was doing the right thing by keeping the policy in place.
“It is being continued because we’re ploughing the money into many other areas of the health system including the Turnbull Government’s recent announcement that more than $2.9 billion additional [funding] will be put into public hospitals,” he said.
Mr Frydenberg said, on average, there had been $5 million more each year put into Medicare under the Coalition, than Labor.
“Bulk-billing rates are now reaching historic highs at 85 per cent and more money every year is being put into Medicare,” he said.
Practices ‘struggling to remain viable’
Professor Owler said the costs of running a medical practice, covering rent, staff, equipment, indemnity insurance and accreditation, increased year-on-year and doctors had no choice but to pass costs on.
“Many doctors have absorbed the impact of the freeze until now, but the two-year extension has pushed them over the edge,” he said.
“Effectively the budget has meant that there’ll be a freeze for almost seven years.
“Their businesses are now struggling to remain viable.
“No-one can operate under those sorts of circumstances.”
Professor Owler said other medical organisations would join the AMA and GPs in their push to see the decision overturned.
“The Medicare freeze is not just a co-payment by stealth, it is a sneaky new tax that punishes every Australian family,” he said.
“The medical profession is united in its efforts to put an end to the Medicare freeze, and protect patients.”