Keep the cuts away from our Medicare health rebates

SLOGGED: The Australian Medical Association has warned that rebate freeze will result in a “co-payment by stealth”, with bulk billing rates plummeting.Access to decent, affordable health care for all Australians is a basic right – but achieving it has not been an easy fight.

The three central policy pillars that support Australia’s health system – Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and proper support for public hospitals – were all designed by Labor to help reduce inequality and the resulting adverse health outcomes that occur through disadvantage.In Australia, it’s your Medicare card, not your credit card, that should be the key determinant to accessing quality health care.

Unfortunately Coalitiongovernments have always been opposed to Medicare and this government is no different. In their two and a half years in office they have worked to constantly undermine our universal health system –$57 billion has been cut from public hospitals, including $155 million from Hunter New England Health hospitals that support our local community;$6 billion has been taken from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

And primary health care has been relentlessly pursued with multiple proposals to increase the cost to see your GP.Versions 1, 2, 3 and 4 of a direct GP Tax were shelved by the Coalition Government following strong community campaigns around Australia, including here in Newcastle.

But with the Government’s plans to save $1.3 billion by freezing the Medicare rebate, doctors will be forced to do what the Parliament has refused to do – slug patients with an extra fee to see their GP. We know from a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia that GPs would need to charge more than $8 for each patient visit to recoup income lost through the freeze.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has repeatedly warned that the rebate freeze will result in the introduction of a “co-payment by stealth”, with bulk billing rates plummeting around the nation.

December’s Budget update, released by Malcolm Turnbull, included another hit to the health system with $650 million cut from spending on Medicare rebates for pathology and diagnostic imaging.Tests and scans that are vital for detecting, treating, and fighting chronic disease and cancer.Blood tests, urine tests, pap smears and tests for STIs will no longer be able to be bulk billed and patients will be forced to pay upfront. The same goes for scans like MRIs and X-rays.

Under Medicare rules, any patient charged these fees will have to pay the entire amount upfront and then claim back a rebate later – and the costs are not inconsiderable. It’s estimated that patients may have to pay $93 for an X-ray and more than $30 for a pap smear. And if you are unlucky enough to require a PET scan to assess cancer or a brain disease, you could be hit with a cost of $1000.If you have a serious condition, where you need regular check-ups and tests you pay over and over again.

President of the Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association, Dr Christian Wriedt, has called the cuts “simply bad policy”.The Chief Executive of Pathology Australia, Liesel Watt, has flagged the potential health dangers, warning that if patients have to pay for testsupfront, “they may think twice about getting their tests”, despite their GP’s advice.

Enough is enough.

If we want our health system to remain the envy of the world, a strong Medicare must be at the core.This Saturday, the Shadow Assistant Health Minister Stephen Jones and I will be at Gregson Park at midday to demand a stop to this constant undermining of Medicare.

Sharon Claydon, Federal Member for Newcastle