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19 Apr 2016

The Federal Government is facing a storm of protest over its decision to axe and cut back bulk billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging services.

A “Don’t Kill Bulk Bill” petition calling on the Government to dump the $650 million savings measure had attracted almost 425,000 signatures by mid-April as the industry used its network of more than 5000 pathology collection centres to promote the campaign.

Peak industry group Pathology Australia, which is spearheading the campaign, said there was mounting community anger about the cuts, and warned that they would end up costing the Commonwealth more as people deferred or skipped tests crucial to diagnosing and managing serious health problems including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

A report on pathology services commissioned by the industry group reported that last financial year almost one in every two visits to a GP resulted in a referral for a pathology test, and 30 per cent of all health problems managed by the family doctor involved pathology testing.

In all, the Commonwealth spent $2.55 billion (around 3 per cent of total health spending) on 128.8 million pathology services (including 89.4 million tests) in 2014-15, virtually 88 per cent of which were bulk billed.

Health Minister Sussan Ley has argued that the bulk billing incentives, worth between $1.40 and $3.40, have done little to lift bulk billing rates, and have instead gone to boost the bottom line of big pathology and radiology operators.

Controversially, the Government has begun to draw down on the putative savings from the measure to help subsidise advanced drug treatments for the nation’s 233,000 hepatitis C sufferers – a move the Minister said could lead to the eradication of the disease.

But AMA President Professor Brian Owler has condemned the bulk billing incentive cut as an attempt to introduce a patient co-payment “by stealth” by forcing operators to charge out-of-pocket fees for their services.

“It’s very clear that to be viable, that if these bulk billing incentives are taken away, then of course they’re going to have to pass those fees onto patients,” Professor Owler said. “That’s what this strategy is all about. It’s about the Government saying ‘no, we’re not paying any more; we’re going to make the provider charge you a fee’.”

The AMA President warned the charge for patients was likely to be much more than $3, given all the overheads and costs involved in collecting a fee.

The savings measure is yet to be approved by Parliament and could become a major issue during the forthcoming Federal election.

Adrian Rollins


Published: 19 Apr 2016