• Tony Bosworth

Medicare set to become election battlefield issue in Hawkesbury as pollies spar over the numbers

No-one knows for certain when there will be a general election but while the date is unknown what is clear is that Medicare will be one of the election issues, with Labor claiming costs under Medicare are going up for a range of treatments, while the government points to higher spending on its watch.

The issue is coming up now because of one of the biggest changes to the Medicare Benefits Scheme underway through the government’s Medicare Benefits Review (MBR) which looks at costs for a range of medical treatments and essentially leads to gap payment levels.

The results of that review can affect the gap price many people will be paying for a range of treatments.

“The data shows that out of pocket expenses for people in Macquarie [the electorate covered by Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains] have risen dramatically since the Liberals came to office,” says Macquarie MP Susan Templeman.

“The amount people spend when they visit a GP has gone up by 35%, and a specialist visit has gone up by 43%,” she claims.

“This government has a rock-solid commitment to Medicare,” a spokesperson for Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told the Post.

“Commonwealth funding for Medicare under the Coalition has increased from $19 billion per annum when Labor was in power to $30 billion this year alone, climbing to $31 billion, $32 billion and $33 billion per year over the Budget,” the spokesperson said.

Labor says costs for some treatments will increase, leading to higher gap prices

But Ms Templeman, says, “the Minister is very selective with his facts.”

“Of course the cost of Medicare is increasing year on year – there are more people receiving more complex treatments, and especially with an aging population, the demand is greater.

Ms Templeman claims the government’s MBR is leading to higher gap payments for one in six items.

“The items being changed include orthopaedic surgery items, cardiac surgery, and a range of general surgery,” says Ms Templeman.

“More than 900 out of 5700 items on the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) are being changed,” Ms Templeman said.

“This [last] Budget actually increases Medicare expenditure by $6 billion and includes $711 million of additional funding for new Medicare items,” says Minister Hunt’s spokesperson.

“The update actually implements new orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgery items to support patients. There will be a suite of new procedures not previously available, as well as incentivised rebates to ensure that patients receive the best care possible and to move away from out-dated or obsolete medical practices,” says Minister Hunt.

“These new patient benefits are based on medical advice from the MBS Review Taskforce, as well as the Medical Services Advisory Committee. The review process has been underway since 2015 with Labor’s support and had the aim of updating a decades old MBS to ensure a high level of patient safety and access to modern clinical procedures,” says the Minister’s spokesperson.

“The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has endorsed the updates and the AMA President has utterly rejected Labor’s claims saying he hoped there would not be another Mediscare-style campaign,” claims Minister Hunt.

The AMA has some concerns about how the government's MBS Review was carried out...

The President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, would not comment directly on the Minister’s claims but did tell the Post his organisation had some concerns about how the MBS Review was being carried out.

"The AMA's concerns were about the implementation of the MBS Review,” Dr Khorshid told us.

Dr Korshid said doctors were concerned about the likely gap payment for certain services because doctors often simply didn’t know what that gap cost would be because of the way the MBS was carried out.

“If doctors did not know what a fund’s rebates were at the time they booked surgery with a patient, they would not be in a position to inform the patient of any likely gap,” said Dr Korshid.

“Thankfully, the government has committed to providing more lead time when future MBS changes are implemented, as well as requiring health funds to put their rebates on the Government’s medical costs website. This should help ensure that patients receive more information about costs related to their surgeries,” he said.

Ms Templeman says the fact is, “even though we have a number of GPs who bulkbill their patients, for many people a visit to the GP or specialist is significantly more expensive since the Liberals came to office. Wages have had their slowest increase in history, but medical costs have risen sharply.

“Unfortunately for Mr Hunt, it’s not just Labor saying patients around Australia will be looking at more increases in out of pocket expenses because of the cuts to the MBS that have come into force.

“As I have previously stated, the AMA, the Grattan Institute, health funds, the Consumers Health Forum, and the Australian Orthopaedic Association, have all warned these changes will impact on fees and lead to an increase in out of pocket costs for patients.

“The Liberals have cut Medicare time and again, through changes to Medicare items and through six years of rebate indexation freezes. It’s what they do, whenever they think they can get away with it.”

Modern medicine is complex and expensive, with Medicare shielding patients from much of the cost

Shadow Health Minister, Labor’s Mark Butler, has also weighed in, which in part points to how crucial a touchstone Medicare will be in any upcoming election.

As Susan rightly points out, while more than 12 million Australians are in lockdown and the national focus is understandably on the COVID-19 outbreaks, Scott Morrison has snuck out almost 1000 cuts and changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule.”

“Since the Liberals came into government the people of Macquarie have already endured out-of-pocket increases to GP fees of 35% and a 43% increase in specialist fees,” he says.

“The Minister’s spin is what we’ve come to expect from the Liberal Government who have spent eight long years attacking Medicare.

“Cutting Medicare is in the Liberals DNA. I know Susan Templeman will always fight to protect Medicare and rightfully call out when the Liberals attack it.”

But Minister Hunt disputes Mr Butler’s premise.

“It’s important to remember that it was Labor slashed access to mental health services and stopped the listing of new medicines on the PBS in the face of deep opposition from the medical experts when they were last in government.

“Macquarie deserves better than Ms Templeman and Mediscare 3.0,” he said.

“Labor built Medicare,” counters Ms Templeman, “and it’s my job to call out changes by this government that affect access to services and increase cost for people in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains.

“I will always protect Medicare, but it’s in the Liberals’ DNA to cut it.”

One thing is for sure, Medicare and the cost of health services is an issue which is not going away anytime soon, and as a federal election moves ever closer rest assured we will all be hearing more about it.

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