Medicare freeze lift won't see more rural doctors bulk billing

HEALTH HURT: Bek Hooley said the Peel and Oxley Health Care clinics see have more than 2000 consults a week. Despite the Medicare rebate freeze being lift, many doctors still can't afford to bulk bill. Photo: Jamieson Murphy
HEALTH HURT: Bek Hooley said the Peel and Oxley Health Care clinics see have more than 2000 consults a week. Despite the Medicare rebate freeze being lift, many doctors still can't afford to bulk bill. Photo: Jamieson Murphy

If you don’t get bulk billed at your local GP, don’t expect it to start anytime soon.

While the government has lifted the Medicare rebate freeze, which has made it financially unviable for rural practices to bulk bill, many local doctors say it still won’t be enough to make them start bulk billing again.

University of Newcastle senior medicine lecturer and Tamworth GP, Miriam Grotowski said while lifting the freeze was a step in the right direction, patients haven’t seen an increase in rebates for six years.

“The gap between the recommended fee for a GP consultation and the current Medicare rebate is quite large, about half of the recommended fee,” Dr Grotowski said.

“Our fees pay for all our staff, our rent, equipment and all running costs.

“Many GPs would be prepared to bulk bill more often if the rebate came close to covering our costs.”

Peel and Oxley Health Care practice manager Bek Hooley said on average the clinics had more than 2000 consults a week.

She agreed GPs and patients “are years behind”, especially when the six years of inflation was taken into account.

“They’ve lifted the rebate freeze, not brought it back into line,” Ms Hooley said.

“We’ll continue doing what we do. We can’t start bulk billing all patients.

“To have a viable business, for us at the moment private billing is the way to go.”

Ms Hooley also added the thawing of the Medicare freeze, which will happen over four years, means nothing unless it passes through the senate.

The Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) CEO Peta Rutherford said “many people probably won't see the benefit”.

“It won’t be enough to change a doctor who is privately billing to bulk billing,” Ms Rutherford said.

“It’s a positive step, but will it make up for the last six years of freeze? Probably not.”

While many rural clinics can’t afford to bulk bill every patient, some offer it to vulnerable people in the community, such as pensioners and health care card holders.

But if the freeze remained in place much longer, Ms Rutherford said clinics would have to reconsider bulk billing vulnerable patients.

“[The freeze lift] relieves a bit of the pressure for clinics looking at the viability of bulk billing,” she said.

“We’ve always maintained a strong position that just lifting the Medicare freeze is no enough on its own to address the issues impacting rural communities and their access to doctors. A lot more needs to be done to tackle the issue. Things like workforce distribution, supporting training and getting young doctors in rural areas.”