Don’t go to your doctor, the minister wants you to see the pharmacist instead

Pharmacies will be handed $1.26 billion for delivering healthcare services. Good for them. But meanwhile the government is not prepared to increase the Medicare rebates patients receive when they see a doctor.

As a result of the new health policies, visits to the doctor will become more expensive in the years to come, whereas pharmacies will be paid more to deal with health problems. With this move Health Minister Susan Ley seems to make a clear statement: Don’t go to your doctor, see the pharmacist instead.

A vague agreement

It could be me but I’m not entirely sure what the Health Minister will sign off on – it’s all still a bit vague:

The Pharmacy Guild says on its website: “The Government has committed to $50 million over the Agreement for a Pharmacy Trial Program to trial new and expanded community pharmacy programs which seek to improve clinical outcomes for consumers and extend the role of pharmacists in the delivery of healthcare services through community pharmacy.”

National President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia Grant Kardachi says: “PSA particularly welcomes the doubling in this agreement to $1.26 billion of funding for the provision of patient-focussed professional services.”

According to Australian Doctor magazine, “some $600 million will be spent on ‘new and expanded’ services, but there is no detail on what services this will cover.”

One thing is certain: Pharmacies are going to deliver more healthcare services – and at the same time the freeze on indexation of the Medicare rebates comes at a cost for patients.

Questions

Here re my questions:

  • Is Minister Ley’s decision helping to improve teamwork within primary care, or is it creating more confusion and frustration for patients and their doctors?
  • Can pharmacists and their assistants offer the same quality healthcare as doctors and practice nurses?
  • Can the person who is selling the drugs give independent health advice?
  • Why not spend part of the money on increasing the rebate patients get back from Medicare after visiting their doctor?
  • Why not spend part of the money on improving access to practice nurses and GPs?
  • Does this mean that doctors will miss opportunities to pick up on health problems, because patients will see the pharmacy assistant instead?
  • When the Pharmacy Guild talks about ‘evidence-based’ services, what do they mean? (given the fact that many community pharmacies also sell unproven remedies and products).

What do you think, is this good policy or not?

Why the ‘You’ve been targeted’ campaign against the co-payment was so successful

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” ~ Howard Zinn

Not many people know that the main message of one of the most successful campaigns of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) against government policy was largely inspired by one patient.

At the height of all the commotion about the co-payments, patient advocate Ms Jen Morris posted a message on Twitter suggesting a different response to the government proposals: Instead of focusing the campaign on doctors, she said, we should be focusing on the consequences of the policy for patients.

We’re sorry

I used her simple but powerful message in a leaflet (see image). It said:

We’re sorry to hear your rebate will be slashed. (…) It’s not that we haven’t tried, but the Government doesn’t seem to listen to GPs. They may listen to you.”

We are sorry
The original design inspired by Ms Jen Morris.

Not long after I posted it on my blog and social media channels, the RACGP President contacted me. He wanted to include the message in a national campaign. I thought it was great that the RACGP was using social media and that they took notice of what was being said. Not long after, the You’ve been targeted campaign was unleashed by the college. The message was similar to the original, inspired by Jen Morris:

“Your rebate from Medicare will be CUT (…). We have been vocal with Government but it’s falling on deaf ears. They haven’t listened to us but they will listen to you.”

The RACGP had listened to patients and many of their members who wanted a patient-focused campaign. The You’ve been targeted approach showed that every GP surgery in Australia can be turned into a grassroots campaign office if necessary. After other groups, including the Consumers Health Forum and the AMA, increased pressure on the government, the co-payment plan was dropped.

I spoke to Ms Jen Morris and RACGP President Dr Frank Jones about the role of patient input, the use of social media and what we can learn from the remarkable campaign – as there is still a lot of work to do (for example to reverse the freeze on indexation of Medicare rebates)

A pay cut for wealthy doctors?

Morris: “I opposed the co-payment, but was concerned that the original approach adopted by doctors’ organisations misjudged the public’s values, as well as public perceptions of doctors’ wealth and social position. In the initial stages of the campaign against the proposed co-payment, doctors’ organisations, and thus media coverage, were framing it as a pay cut for doctors.”

“Misframing the situation like this made it harder for those of us opposing the changes to explain the various proposals, including Medicare rebate freezes, in a way which the public could understand. It also made it easier for the public to write the problem off as not their concern, but rather a pseudo ‘workplace relations’ issue between doctors and Medicare.”

“At the time, the public were reeling from a budget widely touted as disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. In a social context of widespread public perception that doctors of all stripes are wealthy. So there was little public sympathy when the doctors’ lobby cried foul because the government was trying to ‘cut their pay’. There was a sense that as well-off professionals, GPs should take their fair share of the fiscal blows and ‘cop it on the chin’.”

“The government played perfectly into the combination of these two problems. By later touting the co-payment as ‘optional’, they painted GPs who chose to charge it as opting to squeeze patients rather than take a pay cut.”

‘Extremely poor policy’

Jones: “The RACGP repeatedly raised its concerns with government over many months regarding the impact of a co-payment on the general practice profession and its patients. As GPs we have an obligation to speak up and oppose any policy that will impact on our patient’s access to quality healthcare. We know that poor health policy drastically affects the ability of GPs to deliver quality patient healthcare, and this was extremely poor health policy.”

“When it became apparent the RACGP’s concerns were not gaining the traction required to influence change, we decided it was time to increase pressure. While advocacy has always been a major component of the RACGP’s work, it has recently taken a more public, contemporary approach to these efforts.”

“In the case of You’ve been targeted, this meant ensuring patients were also included in the conversation and encouraged to stand united with GPs to protect primary healthcare in Australia. We collectively see hundreds of thousands of patients a day and knew that a campaign bringing GPs and patients together would present a strong united voice.”

You've been targeted
The succesful RACGP You’ve been targeted campaign

The strength of the campaign

Morris: “Like most public policy debates, successful campaigning against the co-payment was contingent on securing public support in a political PR contest, which means getting the public on side. I believed that re-framing the issue around patient interests was the key to changing public perceptions, and winning the PR battle.”

Jones: “The RACGP took notice of what patients were saying about the co-payment and listened to our members who were telling us they wanted a campaign that focused on how their patients would be impacted. This is what led to the creation of You’ve been targeted.”

“The response to the RACGP’s change.org online petition was a big step for the campaign, with more than 44,800 signatures obtained in less than one week. While the campaign gained momentum through protest posters, use of the social media hashtag and sending letters to MPs and this allowed for concerns to be heard, the online petition was a collective demonstration of the sheer extent of those concerns.”

“A campaign’s strength is intrinsically connected to how powerfully it resonates with its audience and You’ve been targeted hit all the right buttons in this respect campaigning on an issue that affected every single Australian, young and old.”

Novel approaches

Morris: “If doctors and patients can capitalise on common ground and present a united front from the outset, the weight of political force will rest with us.”

Jones: “In terms of closer collaboration on advocacy campaigns, the RACGP feels there will be significant opportunity to work with health consumer organisations, given the mutual priorities of better supporting patient care.”

“The RACGP has already partnered with consumer organisations including the Consumers Health Forum (CHF) with whom it produced a number of joint statements. Most recently, the RACGP and CHF partnered in a joint submission regarding the deregulation of pharmacy locations and ownership.”

“The RACGP has consumer representatives on its key committees and boards. We have a history of working with consumer groups on important issues, and will continue to do so moving forward.”

“In light of the RACGP’s recent campaign successes, we will increasingly use social media as a platform to act as a voice for Australian GPs and their patients. Social media is new age media and the RACGP is committed to keeping pace with technological advances to ensure its members are effectively represented.”

How safe is the patient safety net?

In the ‘Blogging on Demand’ series you get to choose the topic. If you have a great idea you want the world to know about, feel free to contact me. Perth GP Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith proposes a change to the PBS safety net to protect vulnerable patients.

“One thing that my patients with chronic disease on lower incomes find difficult,” says Dr Garton-Smith, “is that they have to pay for all their medications until they hit the safety net. Even if people are only paying the lower rate for scripts, it adds up if they are on a number of medications. I have seen it affect compliance at the beginning of the year when they have to decide which medications they need most.”

The general patient safety net threshold is currently $1,453.90, and the concessional threshold $366. When someone or their family’s total co-payments reach this amount, they only have to pay the concessional co-payment amount of $6.10 until the end of the calendar year. Concessional card holders get standard PBS scripts for free after they reach the threshold.

The PBS co-payment and safety net amounts, effective from 1 January 2015:

General patient co-payment: $37.70

Concessional co-payment: $6.10

General safety net threshold: $1,453.90

Concessional safety net threshold: $366.00.

A safer solution

Garton-Smith: “Loading the costs into a few months of the year and then being free the rest of the year for concessional card holders is concerning. My patients tell me the safety net is supposed to help them but doesn’t – until it kicks in. For someone who has diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, arthritis, reflux, depression and sometimes osteoporosis, asthma or COPD, you can see the impact. This is not an unusual scenario.”

“It would be so much easier if the cost could be spread out over the year for people likely to hit the safety net. It would also prevent people attempting to stock-pile at the end of the year. I realise most people don’t get more than 5 scripts a month but those who need to are often managing serious health problems.”

Medication adherence 

Research has shown that when co-payments for medications increase, more people stop their treatment. This includes essential preventive medications, and as a result more visits to the doctor and hospital may be required.

Associate professor Michael Ortiz said in Australian Prescriber: “Some have argued that greater cost sharing does not undermine overall patient health because patients facing rising costs will reduce their consumption of perceived non-essential medications more than their consumption of essential drugs. However, ‘preventive’ drugs are different, because not all patients understand the long-term benefits of taking medicines for conditions such as hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia.”

“Some of my patients need to delay filling scripts they see as less essential

Garton-Smith: “A patient I have seen needs to buy more than ten medications every month at a cost of $85. Sometimes there are extra costs, for example if he needs antibiotics. On a single disability pension he gets $840.20 per fortnight, so approximately 5% of his income is spent on scripts until he reaches the safety net threshold, generally by May. Even though he gets a lot of prescriptions filled just before the end of December, he usually needs to delay filling scripts that he sees as less essential at the start of the year.”

Professor Michael Ortiz in Australian Prescriber: “The current approach to PBS savings is that the Government takes most of the cost savings, but increases co-payments and safety net thresholds each year in line with inflation. Increasing co-payments reduces medication adherence and ultimately may compromise the care of some patients.”

Thanks to Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith for the topic suggestion.

Some common sense thoughts on health reform

When I arrived last night for a meeting with Federal MP Mal Brough, I had to work my way through TV camera crews to get to my chair.

But contrary to what everyone thought, Brough didn’t come to challenge the prime-minister. The meeting with local hospital doctors, GPs and staff was about health reform and the Medicare rebate – and what he had to say was remarkable.

I was expecting the usual: Budget crisis, rising Medicare costs, price signals etc. But this was a different message coming from a liberal MP.

Brough first showed some figures comparing (combined commonwealth and state) hospital expenditure versus GP Medicare rebates: $39.9 billion vs $5.9 billion per year. He demonstrated that hospital costs are rapidly rising but GP Medicare rebates remain more or less static.

His 3 core messages:

1. This must be a debate on improving the health of the nation, not a debate on cost cutting or cost shifting

2. A co-payment or price point should not be the starting point of this discussion

3. There are tremendous efficiencies to be had in hospital, specialist services and aged care if Primary Health provision is enhanced and is the heart of the nation’s health system.

Health organisations are hammering this message: If you want to keep patients out of our expensive hospitals, strengthen general practice – don’t take money out of the industry.

Brough underlined this by showing AIHW data indicating that over one-third of emergency department presentations were for potentially avoidable GP-type presentations (see image). A GP co-payment will almost certainly drive more traffic to the hospital EDs.

Mal Brough’s suggestion: Scrap it.

Co-payments, and why they’re not always appropriate

Co-payments, and why they're not always appropriate

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in my job. There are always plenty of valid reasons why a particular approach or treatment works for one person but not for another.

One-size-fits-all healthcare is bad medicine. Bulk billing everyone doesn’t make sense. It’s not necessary and doesn’t cover the costs. In the same way, charging a co-payment across the board doesn’t make sense either.

There are people out there doing it tough, such as Melbourne mother Kaye Stirland who wrote treasurer Joe Hockey a letter that went viral on social media. Kaye represents a group of people who cannot afford to pay $7 to see their GP.

The co-payment also puts healthcare providers in a difficult position. RACGP president Liz Marles said in Medical observer: “There will be times with patients we all see – mentally ill patients, young people, homeless people, people just doing it really tough – where GPs will have to waive that money. That will mean that GPs will not only lose that $5 but if they are a concession card holder you’re also losing the $6 bulk-billing incentive.”

I believe there’s nothing wrong with co-payments in general. In the end bulk billing is not sustainable if Medicare rebates don’t keep up with inflation and business costs (see this video).

AMA president Steve Hambleton was quoted by MO saying this: “If the minister says he thinks people should pay a co-payment if they can afford to do so, the AMA has no problem with that. (…) But we believe there are people who can’t afford to… We need to know what we’re going to do about low-income earners.”

Some vulnerable groups should be excluded from paying co-payments when they visit their healthcare providers. Co-payments are not always appropriate.