MBS Review: A stronger primary care system in sight?

Implementing healthcare reform in Australia is always an uphill battle. After a disappointing outcome of the much-anticipated Healthcare Homes program, some of the members of the Primary Health Care Advisory Group regrouped when they were appointed to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce.

The recommendations by the taskforce to improve the MBS are refreshing in many ways. There is a move towards strengthening GP stewardship, voluntary patient enrolment, more non face-to-face care, a simpler careplan program and increased support for home visits – which seems sensible and is addressing the frustrations of many about the current Medicare system.

It appears there are a few things missing. For example, there is no recommendation to spend more time with our patients by committing to an increase in the schedule fee of longer consultations (item numbers 36 and 44). This would have been more useful for most patient encounters than a new one-hour plus item number.

I believe the residential aged-care item numbers will need more investment when the SIP incentive ceases to exist. There is mention of outcome-based payments which requires an explanation. The lack of detail about the dollar values makes it challenging to predict the impact on general practice and primary care.

In an ideal world the recommendations could result in an invigorated, modern, patient-centred health system. However, if history repeats itself, the result will be a simple cost-saving exercise, dressed up as clinician-led, evidence-based healthcare reform.

A typical case of make it or break it.

Disruption by the after-hours industry and why you should care

After-hours medical home visiting services are important for patients and their doctors but we need an ethical and sustainable model that integrates with day-time services.

Doctors and professional medical bodies including the RACGP and AMA regularly express concerns about healthcare models that compromise on quality, fragment and duplicate care or fail to use scarce health dollars efficiently.

The Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce has voiced similar concerns in relation to some of the home visiting services. In its recently published interim report the taskforce notes that the growth in claiming of urgent attendances by after-hours medical services is showing an increase far in excess of population growth.

The taskforce believes the services often interfere with continuity of care by the patient’s regular GP and represent low value care. It is not convinced that the rise of urgent after-hours home visits has had a significant impact on hospital emergency department services.

Inappropriate use of funding?

Indeed, there are indications that funding for after-hours medical services in the community may be used inappropriately. For example, I have received reports from some of these services delivering repeat prescriptions after-hours to patients’ homes. The care is often not provided by GPs but by less qualified practitioners.

An after-hours visit classified as ‘urgent’ attracts a Medicare rebate which can be $100 more compared with the same service provided at a GP practice. This has created a lucrative standalone after-hours industry which doesn’t always represent value for money for the taxpayer.

No reduction of emergency department presentations
The assumption that increased provision of urgent, after-hours consultations (MBS item 597) would reduce demand for emergency departments has not been confirmed. Source: AFP

Let’s look at the ACT: since the arrival of the bulk-billing National Home Doctor Service in the capital, home visits rose from 1588 in 2013–14 to 20,556 in the previous financial year.

According to the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce, Medicare benefits paid for urgent after-hours services have increased by 170 per cent, from $90.8m in 2010–11 to $245.9m in 2015–16, whilst benefits paid for normal GP services increased by 27 per cent.

There is no reasonable explanation for the exponential growth. The taskforce is of the opinion that MBS funding should continue to be available for home visits in the after-hours period but has made some sensible recommendations to improve the model.

After-hours lobby 

The response from the after-hours lobby speaks for itself: The National Association for Medical Deputising Services started an aggressive lobbying campaign to ‘protect home visits’.

Although several after-hours services left the corporate lobby group – including the Canberra After-Hours Locum Medical Service, the Melbourne-based DoctorDoctor service and the Western Australian Deputising Medical Service – the campaign continues to target consumers and politicians.

The actions of the lobby group and some after-hours services have raised eyebrows. Mass media advertising and marketing campaigns via television, newspapers, and billboards will drive unnecessary use and should be avoided. Similarly bookings for after-hours deputising services during daytime hours should stop.

A sensible solution

It’s not rocket science: As after-hours home deputising services do not offer comprehensive GP care, they should only be used when a patient’s usual GP or general practice is not available and the patient has a health concern that cannot wait until the following day.

It is time to use these Medicare-funded services wisely – when genuinely needed, not wanted or promoted.