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03 Mar 2017

The Federal Government appears to be getting closer to unwinding the freeze on the Medicare rebate, for visits to general practitioners as well as specialists.

Since it was first introduced in 2013, the freeze has been a constant cause for concern for doctors and patients and something the AMA has lobbied hard to have lifted.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has already held productive talks with new Health Minister Greg Hunt, stressing the need for the freeze to be lifted.

But it is the Minister himself who has been vocal about the possibility of an imminent announcement regarding changes.

Speaking just days after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Government was revisiting the issue of the Medicare rebate freeze, Mr Hunt confirmed that the policy was up for review.

“The Prime Minister has said and I have said that that is an item we would be willing to review and we are willing to review, subject to a very clear set of reforms that will make the system stronger and better,” Mr Hunt told the ABC in late February.

The Minister said he was keen to work productively with the medical profession on developing a long-term national health plan, and suggested lifting the rebate freeze was part of that strategy.

“It’s about making sure that we get an agreement where there is what the doctors need to keep progressing, but what we need in order to provide the best outcomes for the patients,” he said.

“And I am actually very confident that we can have a long-term national health plan which improves access, improves treatment, improves the hospital system for the patient and at the same time allows us to establish a deep, strong working relationship with the general practitioners and the medical specialists.”

Commenting specifically on the possibility of the Medicare rebate freeze being lifted, Dr Gannon said he was confident Mr Hunt understood the complexity of the issues in his Health portfolio and the need to revisit the rebate.

“We are determined to see him help turn his Government’s record on health around,” Dr Gannon said.

“At the top of the agenda is adequate public hospital funding and unravelling the Medicare freeze.

“He knows by now our very clear view that health spending represents an investment in our community. It need not always be seen as a cost.

“I’m very sensitive to the desires of Minister Hunt, the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet to try and bring our budget closer to balance and to maintain the nation’s triple A credit rating.

“That’s responsible government. But I am genuinely hopeful that they will see value in investing further in our health system.

“They need to be clever in finding ways for the new spending, but we will always advocate responsibly on behalf of not only the patients of Australia, but those taxpayers that do the heavy lifting.”

 The Medicare rebate freeze was first introduced by Labor in 2013 and was meant to be temporary, with the aim of saving the budget $664 million.

It has remained in force through successive governments, but the issue cost the Coalition votes in last year’s election – both because its 2014 Budget was a shocker for public health, and because Labor campaigned hard on the line that the Government wasn’t committed to Medicare.

Since the election, the Government has been at pains to stress its “absolute commitment” to Medicare, but some ministers say more needs to be done to claw back ground following Labor’s “Mediscare” campaign.

A full lift of the freeze in the May Budget could cost more than $3 billion.

The AMA and the Government are continuing discussions.

Chris Johnson




Published: 03 Mar 2017