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06 Jan 2016

Women face being charged to get their pap smear results under Federal Government plans to axe bulk billing incentives for pathology services.

Calculations by the AMA show the Government’s contribution to the cost of a pap smear will be cut by 12 per cent to $23.55 from 1 July, a $3.20 reduction. There were almost 1.8 million pap smears conducted in 2014-15, suggesting the cut will save the Government around $5.7 million a year.

Pathology providers, who have had no increase in the Medicare rebate for their services for almost two decades, have warned that many labs will not be able to absorb the cut and will instead have to pass it on to their patients.

The amount charged to patients is likely to increase above $3.20 to account for the additional administrative costs of billing individuals, including processing payments and chasing up amounts owing.

Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia Chief Executive Debra Graves told Sydney radio station 2SER FM that most pathology labs would have to reduce the rate at which they bulk bill patients, meaning many will be forced to make a co-payment.

The issue has alarmed doctors and pathologists because of concerns that out-of-pocket costs will convince many patients to forego a pap smear, reducing the chances of early detection of cervical cancer.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler condemned the bulk billing incentive cuts at the time they were announced, describing them as “a co-payment by stealth”.

“Cutting Medicare patient rebates for important pathology and imaging services is another example of putting the Budget bottom line ahead of good health policy,” Professor Owler said. “These services are critical to early diagnosis and management of health conditions to allow people to remain productive in their jobs for the good of the economy.”

Health Minister Sussan Ley has tried to head off a social media campaign on the issue by arguing that the Government has not touched the Medicare rebate it pays for pap smear tests, and the bulk billing incentive was an “inefficient” payment to pathology companies.

In its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook statement, the Government estimated that axing the incentive for pathology services and reducing it for diagnostic imaging would save $650 million over four years.

But the AMA said that the bulk billing incentive had been used by successive governments to help offset the fact that the Medicare rebate for pathology services including pap smears had not been increased in 17 years, and the net effect of axing the incentive was a cut in the Government’s contribution to the cost of a pap smear.

An online petition objecting to the change, which is due to come into effect from 1 July this year, has so far collected almost 34,000 signatures.

Those signing the petition claim the cuts are unfair and will lead to the late detection of illness, which would end up costing the health system more.

Professor Owler said the AMA strongly opposed the changes and would be working to convince the Senate to disallow them.

Adrian Rollins







Published: 06 Jan 2016