AMA seeks compromise on GP co-payment

Saturday, August 23, 2014
Australia's public health-care system is under threat. Photo: Save Medicare Sydney/Facebook.

Save Medicare Sydney, a campaign group committed to defending universal public health care, is calling on the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Palmer United Party to reject any compromise over the federal government's proposed $7 GP co-payment.

The AMA released an alternative plan on August 21. It proposed a $6.15 co-payment, excluding concession card holders and children.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation slammed the compromise, saying: “We strongly oppose any form of a user pays scheme for basic health services. There is no evidence that co-payments will achieve improved health outcomes or budget savings.”

Jean Parker, spokesperson for Save Medicare Sydney, said: "Even a $1 co-payment that exempted all concession card holders would destroy universal health care. This is because a co-payment, however small, will erode bulk-billing levels and create the incentive for ever-increasing fees and private health insurance coverage of GP visits.

"The costs to doctors of administering fees will radically undermine the bulk-billing model. Exempting pensioners or Centrelink recipients will do nothing to stop this fundamental shift.

"The AMA is allowing itself to be a fig leaf for a policy that has no support in the community. AMA discussions with the Minister for Health, Peter Dutton, are helping [Prime Minister Tony] Abbott rehabilitate a policy that could and should be dead by now. We call on the AMA to defend Medicare by rejecting co-payments outright and walking away from these negotiations.”

Save Medicare Sydney is urging all those who support universal public health to step up pressure against the co-payment.

Parker said: "Public opposition to this attack is enormous. Yet recent statements from Clive Palmer indicate the Palmer United Party may soften their opposition and accept a compromise deal. This would be a catastrophe for Medicare. Now is the time to escalate the pressure to kill the co-payment once and for all.

“This government has a radical agenda for health that puts us on the path towards the US system. The co-payment is just the first step. We know Dutton supports legislating to allow private health insurers to cover GP services. Together these changes put profit at the heart of the system, not health.

"Price signals have no place in health. Deciding if your lump or rash is worrying is the job of your GP, not your account balance. The signal the Coalition government is sending is that people on low incomes don't have the same right to good health care. We reject this.

"We're taking our message to Tony Abbott: Hands off Medicare. We will not rest until the co-payment is resoundingly defeated.”

At a recent Hands Off Public Health forum on August 6 at the Unions NSW offices, organised by Save Medicare Sydney, academic Ben Spies-Butcher said: “Australia already has higher out-of-pocket medical costs than any OECD country, except the US ... And bulk-billing is a more efficient system than charging fees.”

Brett Holmes, secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, told the forum: "The threat to Medicare is part of a bigger attack on public health. There is a slow but steady introduction of the private health industry into the public health system.

"This involves the gradual dismantling of Medicare and allowing private hospitals greater power on the state level. In Western Australia, Queensland and NSW, we are seeing a steady march toward the privatisation of health services.”

Jason Williams, a Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union member and former US resident, said: "The US healthcare system has not served the people well. The level of medical care there is based on income, not human need.

"We need to unite to defend the Australian public health-care system. Together, we will save Medicare.”

Already, there are some signs the $7 co-payment proposal is dissuading people from consulting their doctor, even though the plan is still stalled in the Senate. Moreover, the fee would not commence until July next year, if adopted.

Sonic Healthcare, Australia's largest medical centre and pathology services operator, believes confusion about the introduction of the co-payment is putting people off visiting their GP. "The company says it has noticed a drop in the number of diagnostic tests requested since the controversial co-payment was announced in the May budget," said AAP on August 19.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia told a Senate inquiry into government plans to raise fees for drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) that people may be deterred from filling their prescriptions under the proposals, the August 20 Sydney Morning Herald reported.

In its submission, the PSA expressed concern that even as things stood, out of pocket health costs were so high that "there is a danger of patients forgoing some of their necessary medications due to cost”.

To highlight the ongoing campaign to stop any form of Medicare co-payment or fee rise, Save Medicare Sydney has called a demonstration in Abbott's electorate of Manly on September 20, meeting at 1pm in Manly Park to march on the prime minister's office.

[For more information, visit Save Medicare Sydney on Facebook.]

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From GLW issue 1022