We told you so: Ignoring primary care is never a good idea

Last night’s undecided election results raise many questions – and doctors will say: we told you so.

Family doctors have made it very clear during the lead-up to the federal election that it’s crucial for governments to invest in primary care to keep Australians well and out of hospital.

But not only that, during the longest election campaign in Australia’s history, GPs around the country have had discussions with millions of patients about the future of their healthcare.

Looking at the outcome of the election night, it seems that voters have taken the message to the polling booths.

Wealth should not affect our health

The day after the federal election date was announced, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) launched the You’ve been targeted campaign, warning people about the looming higher out-of-pocket costs, which have already become a reality.

The aim of the campaign was not to increase health corporate profits or fill doctors’ pockets, it wasn’t even a political campaign – it was all about the message that the Australian people must be able to visit their doctor when they need to.

Doctors called on a newly elected government to invest in quality and sustainable general practice to strengthen patient services.

“Our first and foremost responsibility is to our patients,” said RACGP President Dr Frank Jones, “and this is really the message from the College in the campaign, because this is about the fact that we cannot sustain quality general practice under the present Medicare freeze.”

Posters went up in GP surgeries, messages were printed at the bottom of prescriptions, TV ads were aired and there were 2340 syndicated media stories featuring the RACGP on national TV, print and radio, and in medical and consumer media outlets across all formats.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) followed suit and threw its weight behind the issue, and shortly after many political parties made health a key focus during the election campaign. The policy shift by Labor to lift the Medicare freeze and fund chronic disease management by general practice teams was welcomed by many.

What should happen next?

Whatever the outcome of the election will be, the new government would do well to sit down with GP leaders and develop a long-term plan to strengthen primary care. The message is simple and supported by abundant evidence: strong primary care keeps people well and out of expensive hospitals. Investing in general practice patient care pays off!

Dr Frank Jones: “The RACGP is seeking progressive health reform and a genuine commitment to the future of our healthcare system from our political leaders and we are committed to discussing funding models for a sustainable and effective primary health care system.”

As GPs around the country are moving away from bulk billing, health minister Susan Ley has already indicated she is prepared to look at a medical home model. The proposed appointment of a National Rural Health Commissioner and commitment of the Coalition to pursue a National Rural Generalist Training Pathway is another positive sign.

However, the medical home is more than a hospital avoidance project. “In a patient-centred medical home, patients have a stable and ongoing relationship with a general practice that provides continuous and comprehensive care throughout all life stages,” said Dr Jones. “This model is the most cost-effective way to address the needs of patients, healthcare providers and funders.”

There are many versions of the medical home or healthcare home. The ‘gold standard’ version is outlined in the RACGP’s Vision for General Practice and a sustainable healthcare system.

Part of the future plan should be the continuation of high quality primary care research and the introduction of non-face-to-face patient services such as video consultations to improve access to family doctors and to transform Australian primary healthcare to the digital age.

Big health corporates win, but who keeps your family out of hospital?

Big health corporates seem to be doing well at the expense of grassroots general practice. This raises concerns about the delivery of patient care in our communities – including keeping people out of hospital.

Last month shares in Primary and Sonic jumped around five per cent after the government promised a number of carrots, including a potential rent reduction for their pathology collection centres within GP surgeries.

Last week the government struck a deal with the Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association. The Sydney Morning Herald: “The Turnbull government forged a deal with the sector late on Friday, promising to delay the cuts for non-concession holders till next January if elected, and to evaluate commercial pressures on the sector.”

Today The Australian reported: “There are groups that are doing well from the status quo, notably the health insurers and pharmaceutical companies. Last year, Medibank Private increased its operating profit by 32.5 per cent. Not bad during a period it lost policyholders.”

“There has been a percentage decrease in spending on hospitals and general practice medical attendances in recent years. At the same time, private health care premiums continue to beat inflation.”

The Australian Newspaper: “The big winners, however, are the pharmaceutical companies. The government funds $10 billion a year (up from $7bn in today’s money a decade ago) and on top of that, consumers stump up a whopping $10bn in over-the-counter preparations. Saving even a fraction of this increment would make an enormous difference to hospitals, general practice and outpatient care.”

Meanwhile, GPs and patients are still faced with the freeze on Medicare rebates. As RACGP president Dr Frank Jones has pointed out on many occasions, this situation has placed GPs and their practices in an invidious situation whereby all patients will have to financially contribute to their consultation and practices will have to curtail some quality patient services to survive financially.

It seems to me there is something seriously wrong with the priorities in our healthcare system.

The problem with ‘record-high’ bulk billing rates

According to government data, bulk billing rates are at an all-time high: around 85% of GP services are bulk billed. This figure is often used to justify the lack of investment in general practice, including the freeze on Medicare rebates patients get back after a visit to their family doctor.

Why is this figure so high? Not surprisingly, the issue is more complex than politicians want us to believe.

According to the government it is a matter of supply and demand. In other words, they claim that GPs will not be able to introduce a fee because their patients would go to a bulk billing practice down the road.

This argument, as well as the government’s focus on record-high bulk billing figures, is misleading and doesn’t tell the whole story.

The truth about BB rates

The reality is that we don’t exactly know why bulk billing levels are high. There are several possible explanations, such as:

  • GPs have been billing compassionately to provide access to all their patients
  • GPs have been absorbing the costs of the government’s freeze on patient Medicare rebates
  • Doctors have increased their services to compensate for the low Medicare rebates
  • As a result of the ageing population more people are bulk billed.

The explanation given by the government that market forces are the reason GPs bulk bill does not do justice to the work of GPs around the country. Besides, as a result of government policies, out-of-pocket expenses for patients have been rising over the years.

Why out-of-pocket costs go up

notice
Image: As a result of the Medicare freeze on patient rebates, GP practices across Australia are getting ready to introduce fees. Source: Twitter

GPs are genuinely concerned about their patients first and foremost and, no matter what politicians say, GPs have been bulk billing a large proportion of their services because they know that many patients would not seek medical care if they had to pay a fee of $15-$20 per visit.

Unfortunately the government has indicated it will not further index Medicare patient rebates, and as result of the government’s long-term Medicare freeze, practices across Australia will be forced to introduce fees.

This was the whole idea behind the government’s original co-payment plan and the reason the Medicare freeze has been dubbed a ‘co-payment by stealth‘.

The short-term ‘savings’ created by the Medicare freeze will likely result in more health problems due to delayed GP visits, and drive up costs in the longer term. A typical case of a penny wise and pound foolish approach.

Downward spiral

What if practices don’t introduce a fee? A bare-bone, high-turnover model is one way bulk billing practices can sustain themselves: doctors may decide to see 7-8 patients per hour instead of 4-5. The question is of course: how safe is this and how long can they keep doing this?

High bulk billing rates, yes – but is this the health care system we want for Australia?

Out-of-pocket costs comparison
The focus on high bulk billing rates is misleading as it only tells part of the story. At the same time Australians pay more out-of-pocket for medical care than many other countries, which creates barriers to visiting a family doctor. Source: RACGP

The bulk billing statistics tell us what percentage of services is bulk billed, not patients. We also know that Australians already pay more out-of-pocket for their care than many other countries, which creates barriers to visiting a family doctor. These figures are rising, so clearly the bulk billing statistics only tell part of the story.

Instead of looking at bulk billing rates as a measure of success, we should be carefully monitoring the out-of-pocket health expenses in Australia.

GP Leaders have warned that we’re facing a downward spiral – which is a risk for the nation’s health and leads to higher overall costs. Even if the freeze on Medicare patient rebates is reversed – which is an absolute must – we’re not out of the woods.

We need well-resourced, sustainable primary care funding models that support high quality care for our patients and are easy to implement at grassroots level.

Why doctors will stop bulk billing

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it ~ Mark Twain.

Although federal health bureaucrats seem to think bulk billing rates will increase, about 30% of GPs say they will stop all bulk billing soon. In a previous post I explained why. As a result of government policy to freeze patient Medicare rebates, doctors are faced with three options. They can:

  1. take an estimated $50,000 pay-cut;
  2. see more patients more often;
  3. charge more.

Some will choose option 1, because they don’t want to or cannot charge their patients more, and are also unable to work more. The reality is however that most GPs will not be able to afford this option.

Others will go for option 2: they may, for example, see 7-8 patients per hour instead of 4-5. They may decide to work more days and longer hours. The question is of course: how safe is this?

Can doctors continue to offer good care when they are churning through high patient numbers? It will certainly feed the epidemic of burnout, depression and suicide among doctors and medical students.

What the Medicare rebate freeze is all about
Medicare is shaping up to be a major election topic. Still, the freeze on the patient Medicare rebate is a complex topic for many. It was a lot easier to understand when Medicare was called the Health Insurance Commission, but the principle is still the same: Medicare pays a contribution towards the doctor’s fee on behalf of the patient. Many GPs have accepted this contribution as a full payment, which is called bulk billing.
The ‘indexation freeze’ everybody is talking about means that this Medicare contribution will not be increased annually, in line with the increasing cost of living. The shortfall will have to be made up by patients which means that the out-of-pocket expenses will go up as doctors stop bulk billing. The freeze on the patient Medicare rebate was introduced by the Labour government in 2013, and will continue under a Coalition government until 2020 and possible longer. The rebate has not kept up with costs and inflation for a much longer period.

3-tier system

Then there is option 3: doctors will charge more, which will increase out-of-pocket costs for patients. As RACGP president Dr Frank Jones mentioned in this interview, we may see a 3-tier system in Australia soon:

“Dr Jones warned poorest patients would feel the impact of the freeze hardest, while there was a risk doctors would churn through appointments more quickly.

He predicted it would lead to a three-tier billing system: doctors would bulk bill their most disadvantaged patients, charge other health care cardholders a concessional rate, and private patients would be charged the Australian Medical Association’s recommended fee.”

In 2015 the RACGP surveyed GPs on how they planned to manage the patient rebate freeze. Of the 566 members who responded, the majority (57%) said they would have to increase out-of-pocket costs for patients.

GPs said they would have to do this either because the practice would stop bulk billing and begin charging a gap or co-payment (30%), or the practice would increase out-of-pocket costs for non-concessional cardholders (27%). Only 8% indicated that they would not increase out-of- pocket costs for their patients.

How fees will go up

It is to be expected that many practices will start cost-cutting: staff levels may be minimised and investments in new equipment, training & education, IT or buildings may become a lower priority. This is a risk for the quality of care.

Practices will determine a fair and equitable fee based on their increasing practice costs, professional time and services. The RACGP and AMA support GPs to set fees that accurately reflect the value of the services they offer, such as the recommended fees in the Australian Medical Association’s List of Medical Services and Fees.

Practices will review their patient demographics and billing profile and optimise the utilisation of MBS items. Pensioners and/or health care card holders may be charged an extra fee which will be much higher than the bulk billing incentive of $9.25.

Practices may decide that certain services will attract fees, for example dressings and other consumables, treating doctor’s reports, off-work/off-school certificates, phone/video consultations, data entry or certain surgical procedures.

Updating practice management software to streamline Medicare claims and EFTPOS payments may be required in some cases. Expect notices to go up in surgeries across the country to tell patients about the changes in billing policies. Unfortunately there will also be some practices that will have to close their doors.

5 reasons why the Medicare rebate freeze is bad policy

When I tweeted about the Medicare freeze last week, someone asked “Care to explain other than meaning you get less money?”

I thought it was a really good question as it highlights the complexity of the issue. Most people seem to think that it’s all about doctors’ income – but it isn’t. The Medicare rebate is also about the money patients get back from Medicare.

As we speak, around Australia GP practices are adjusting their fees as a result of the government policy. Our practice increased the fee of a basic consultation with five dollars for people without a concession card. Other practices have decided to charge a once-off $30 payment to previously bulkbilled patients.

I expect that if the freeze is not lifted these amounts will have to go up again soon.

Greedy doctors?

Everything gets more expensive over the years, including the cost of running a medical practice – think for example about rent and employing receptionists and nurses. If GP practices would not up fees, their Medicare rebate income would drop with 7.1% by 2017-2018!

Over the years more and more services will require an out-of pocket payment by patients, including pensioners and healthcare card holders. Rural doctors expect that bulkbilling in the bush will soon be a thing of the past.

But the freeze has also affected urban areas. That’s why the the RACGP and AMA have labelled the government policy a ‘copayment by stealth’.

Five arguments

The freeze is bad policy and should be reversed for five reasons:

1. Many practices will stop bulkbilling. This means higher out-of-pocket costs for patients. As a result fewer people will visit the doctor in the early stages of a disease. This will often make treatment later on more difficult, more stressful and more expensive.

2. The policy disproportionately affects disadvantaged people who cannot afford a copayment. Research shows that increased out-of-pocket costs stop people from going to the doctor.

3. The freeze undermines important Australian values such as equity of access and therefore encourages a two-tier health system.

Some argue that a copayment would cut unnecessary use of medical services. But higher out-of-pocket-costs will not weed out unnecessary visits. Many of my colleagues know that often their sickest patients will not seek medical care if it becomes more expensive.

4. Research indicates that areas with poor access to GP services have higher hospital costs. It is likely that more people will visit places where healthcare is free, such as already overloaded public hospitals and emergency departments. Dr Google will become more popular too!

5. Practices continuing to bulkbill will have to change their business model: doctors need to see more patients per hour, or practices will have to hire less staff which will affect service. Some practices will close their doors – such as Dr Adrian Jones, a Redfern GP who decided to close his practice as the margins were getting too small.

Is the freeze a necessary policy?

Medicare is not unsustainable. This is a false argument by the government. In fact, Federal Health Minister Susan Ley admitted at the national AMA conference: “The Government is not claiming we’re in a healthcare funding crisis.”

Australian healthcare performs well in comparison to other countries. The increase in health expenditure in general practice has been slow, and in line with overall economic growth and GDP.

Freezing the patient Medicare rebate will not make healthcare more efficient or reduce waste in the system.

Medicare freeze

The Medicare freeze: A storm is coming

Health Minister Sussan Ley said at the annual AMA conference in Brisbane that the Government is not claiming we’re in a healthcare funding crisis.

At the same time dark clouds are gathering as the frustration about the patient Medicare rebate freeze rises.

The Medicare rebate is the amount patients get back from Medicare after they visit their doctor. This amount is supposed to go up every year to compensate for inflation and higher costs. The government has frozen the annual indexation for four years.

The Consumers Health Forum said in its analysis of the latest Budget: “The retention of the $1.67 billion freeze in Medicare payments to doctors may mean many patients are likely to face higher medical bills.”

The Guardian reported: “The AMA president, Brian Owler, used his opening address on Friday to call for both sides of politics to lift the ‘damaging’ freeze which could force GPs to start passing costs on to their patients, amounting to a so-called co-payment by stealth.”

And: “The federal government could face another fierce campaign from one of the nation’s most powerful lobby groups if it does not lift its freeze on doctors’ rebates before the next election.”

The RACGP has also indicated that it would consider a new campaign. It looks like we’re going to get some fireworks again.

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.”