opinion

Get ready to cough up more to go to the doctor.

If there was any doubt before, now we know for sure. This government is not interested in maintaining a Medicare system that enables all Australians universal access to health care.

After the failed attempts to introduce a $7 GP visit co-payment in the face of overwhelming opposition from the public, the government has now moved to freeze the Medicare rebate until 2020.

This might seem like a small thing. If doctors are happy collecting the rebate now, why should we change it, right?

Wrong.

Image: iStock
Image: iStock

The rebate freeze was introduced by Labor in 2013 for nine months, but was later increased by the Abbott government for four years. It's now been further extended until 2020.

Which will make it six years all up with no increase.

Imagine if you were working somewhere and the boss said: "Ok, we are trying to cut costs. So we aren't going to give you a pay rise for six years." Would you want to stay working there? Or would you find a new job, with better pay and the option for regular raises? I think we all know the answer to that question.

For doctors, that "new job" would be no longer bulk billing. It's charging a private up front fee and letting you claim back the rebate amount from the Government.

By shifting pay increases for doctors onto patients, the government is keeping down the cost of Medicare to government, but also devaluing the point of the whole system.

Medicare is about rocking up at the doctor when you are sick and getting treated without having to worry about how you are going to pay for it. It's about making sure that all Australians, no matter how much they earn, have access to top quality medical care throughout their lives.

Medicare is about rocking up at the doctor when you are sick and getting treated without having to worry about how you are going to pay for it. (Image via iStock)
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This decision undermines that principle because it pushes frontline healthcare providers to charge upfront fees instead of recouping the cost of their services from the government.

The way Medicare billing is set up further entrenches this problem. Your doctor can't ask you to pay a small amount to help cover the rising cost of keeping an eye on your health. They have to charge you the full amount of the consultation, some of which you can claim back.

That's one of the problems with this kind of policy. It's hard to understand, which makes it easy for the government to shift the blame onto doctors when bulk billing rates inevitably fall as the freeze begins to bite.

Urine test for pap smear found to be effective
Health is not a luxury. (Image via iStock)

So what does it mean for you? Well, much like when the government axed bulk billing incentive payments for pathology and imaging services just before Christmas, this decision means people will likely have to shell out more money to see their doctor.

That means people with chronic conditions will be hardest hit by the freeze, as they are visiting the doctor more often.

But just like pathology and imaging, if it costs money upfront to visit your GP people will put off sorting out little things, or getting regular preventative health checks, or maybe it will even stop them from vaccinating their children.

And if you're a woman on the pill, not only will you have to go to the doctor to get a new script every few months (so bloody annoying) but now you're more likely to have to pay for that upfront too.

Australia's health system is something we should all be proud of. But with every cut, and every doctor that moves away from bulk billing, we move further and further away from that universal system we all hold so dear.

In the quest for savings to return the rapidly ballooning deficit to a surplus, the government has likely chosen this option to avoid the political pain of being seen to actively cut Medicare.

Instead, they are in danger of letting it freeze to death.

We need the support of the health care system to eradicate diseased such as ovarian cancer. Would you recognise the symptoms?

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