Before Christmas – just as I was about to pack my suitcase – Prime Minister Tony Abbott dropped a bomb.
Together with the Health Minister he announced that the Government had introduced a policy to stop 6-minute medicine – or ‘sausage machine medicine’ as he called it. As a result the Medicare rebate would be reduced in January by $20 for GP consultations of less than 10 minutes.
Battle won, but not the war
This cut to Medicare patient rebates was meant to deliver $1.3 billion in savings over four years. However, as a result of the backlash by GPs and health consumers, the proposal has now been scrapped.
The other 2 components of the Government’s revised co-payment plan are still on the table: $873 million saving from a $5 Medicare rebate cut, and $1.3 billion saving by a four-year freeze of Medicare fees for GPs, medical specialists, optometrists, and others.
Expect more fireworks in the coming months.
Was Abbott right about the sausage machine? Are bulk-billing doctors churning through patients in six-minute sessions?
Most GPs felt Abbott’s argument was a sham as the issue was never raised in the budget. The real agenda was obviously to save health dollars. The timing – just before the Christmas break – as well as the one month’s notice before the measure would kick in, added insult to injury.
Some said it was a case of attempted political suicide.
Research shows that the average GP consultation lasts 14 minutes, not six. Some consultations may only take 5 or 6 minutes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Here’s an example:
Someone comes in with a painful wrist after a fall. An efficient, experienced GP can take a history, examine the wrist and, if needed, organise further investigations within 6 minutes. The GP-in-training may take 20 minutes to do the same, should she be paid more? Probably not.
Abbott’s argument is of course not coming out of the blue: ‘6-minute medicine’ has a bad reputation because some business models of larger corporate GP clinics are purely profit-driven, and it is thought that this can lead to a high patient-turnover.
If Abbott has a problem with this practice, his Government should deal with those clinics, and not punish all GPs and their patients. But there’s more to it.
The real problem
The real problem is the increasing gap between the Medicare rebate and the costs of running a practice. While business expenses are going up every year, Medicare has only slightly increased the rebates over the years – barely covering inflation, and for the past 1.5 years the rebate has been frozen.
As a result, doctors need to see more patients per hour or work more hours, if they want to continue bulk billing. Another option is to retire (not recommended). Or they can choose to charge a gap fee or co-payment. This has happened before.
In 2003 bulk billing rates were at an all-time low of 66%. This didn’t make the Howard Government very popular, so the health-minister – Tony Abbott – had to increase the Medicare rebates. As a result, bulk billing went up again.
At the moment bulk billing rates are at an all-time high, about 85%. If the planned $5 rebate cut and freeze per the 1st of July 2015 go ahead, it is likely that less clinics can afford to bulk bill. History tends to repeat itself: If voters start to complain at a level of about 66% the Government may feel there is room to play – that is if they can get their proposals through the senate.
The new Health Minister Sussan Ley indicated after the backdown last week that she will continue to look for ways to make Medicare ‘sustainable’ and introduce a price signal by way of a co-payment. At the same time she wants to protect bulk billing and maintain and improve high quality healthcare.
I just hope that whatever the solution will be, private insurers are kept at a distance.
It’s good to hear that Minister Ley will talk to doctors – she seems genuine. Many GPs have already started the debate about ways to cut red-tape and increase efficiency in primary care. I’ve heard some excellent suggestions.
A bottom-up approach to health reform takes longer, but is more likely to succeed.