The 1st of June saw the public announcement by Narooma Medical Centre and the Tuross Head Medical Centre that the last of the South East's bulk-billing medical centres would be changing their fee structure to be a Private Billing Practice coming into effect from Friday 1st July 2022.
The announcement stated "This is a decision the business has had to consider for many months now and with no change in the foreseeable future to the low rates that Medicare pays to bulk billing practices, we have had to make the change. Unfortunately without this we would have to face the same fate as other bulk billing practices around our country have to do and close down.
Bulk billing will still be available for patients on Pension cards, Centrelink health care cards,
Centrelink seniors commonwealth cards, DVA Gold, DVA White (condition specific), Children under 16 years old, Aged population over 85 years old, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Mental health related consultations
In addition specific types of appointment the practices would also be able to continue to be bulk billed for all Medicare eligible patients: Health assessments GP Management Plans and reviews Mental Health Plans and reviews Government funded vaccines
Whilst this might be good news for those who will continue to qualify the news comes as a blow to the rest of the community who are not covered by the exemptions and seeking basic health appointments. The Member for Bega, Dr Michael Holland says on hearing the news "It is distressing to hear of the closure of Blue House Surgery Narooma and the intention of the only 100% bulkbilling practices at Narooma Medical and Specialist Centre and Tuross Head Medical to move to a mixed billing model. "We understand the stress this has caused for our local communities and the concerns that this move also threatens the proposed opening of a 100% bulkbilling practice in Bega. "Far too many people in our region are struggling to see a GP as many have closed their books to new patients, and those that are able to book an appointment are facing excessive wait times. "This results in people either delaying treatment or presenting in our emergency departments, putting additional pressure on our already overwhelmed hospital system. "There is a significant shortage of General Practitioners, not just in our local area but across all of regional and rural Australia. "Last year Federal Labor secured a Senate Inquiry into GP shortages in regional and rural Australia. The Albanese Labor Government has also promised almost $1 billion in new Medicare and primary-health funding, to ensure the viability of our important Primary Health Network.
"Labor’s Strengthening Medicare fund aims to improve patient access to GPs particularly after hours in order to reduce the burden on our hospitals. Grant funding will assist staff training, upgrading telehealth and improving medical equipment. "The Albanese Labor Government has also committed to establishing an Urgent Care Clinic in Batemans Bay where patients will be bulkbilled. Once operating this centre will be open from 8am to 10pm.
Dr Holland added, "As a medical practitioner, I fully appreciate the financial demands of running a medical practice. Like any small business, there are the costs of overheads such as rent, fit out, staff wages, insurances, disposables and consumables.
"Apart from their daily General Practice duties, these rural GPs train General Practice registrars, medical students, fulfil hospital VMO duties including inpatient care, anaesthetics, obstetrics and emergencies."
"They also provide essential services to the residents of aged care facilities.
"Primary Health services locally need to be developed according to the following outcomes:
· Build a consumer-focused integrated primary health care system
· Improve access and reduce inequity
· Increase the focus on health promotion and prevention, screening and early intervention; and
· Improve quality, safety, performance and accountability.
Kristy McBain, Member for Eden-Monaro said "People in regional and rural areas deserve access to reliable, consistent and affordable healthcare.
"Under the former Liberal Government, Medicare faced rolling cuts, a six-year freeze on Medicare rebates and the removal of bulk billing incentives.
"General practice is the cornerstone of the Australian health system. Local GPs are vital in ensuring every Australian gets the quality healthcare they deserve.
"I’m proud that an Albanese Labor Government has announce a suite of measures aimed at making it easier for people to see a doctor, particularly those in regional areas like ours."
In March 2022 Greg Hunt, then Minister for Health and Aged Care said "the Morrison Government’s commitment to Medicare is rock solid and we continue to support the health and wellbeing of Australians more than ever."
“Through the 2021-22 Budget, our Government is investing $125.7 billion, up over $6 billion over the forward estimates, as part of our ongoing commitment to guarantee Medicare,”
“This increased investment in Medicare also includes more than $65 million from 1 January 2022 to boost bulk billing rebates and provide more affordable healthcare particularly for patients in regional, rural, and remote areas". It is clear that there is a divide between what the ex-Minister announced and the delivery of rebate enough to see bulk-billing as financially viable for our local practices.
The question now is "Will the new Labor government step in or will the removal of all bulk billing be the new model that will see South East families falling through the gaps?"
Not everyone can afford to drive to the proposed Bulk Billing clinic in Batemans Bay.
Narooma Medical and Specialist Centre have responded "Unfortunately, despite a new Labor government elected with a pledge of “strengthening Medicare” the Medicare Benefits Schedule has announced that a 1.6% indexation will occur from the 1st of July 2022. The headline inflation rate is 6% . The costs of running a medical clinic are increasing far higher than 6%".