Patients Charged Expensive Out-of-Pocket Fees as Doctors Stop Bulk Billing

NEWS: Australia

Perth, Australia mother Jayme Lees has been bulk billed by her General Practitioner (GP) for the past six years, but when she took her newborn son for a check-up in June, she was hit with a hefty, unexpected fee. 

"I went to leave when they told me there was a cost … I was quite shocked," she said.

Some of her son's fortnightly visits to the GP incur a $60 to $80 out-of-pocket fee, adding pressure to the family budget that relies on one income. 

"It has been hard because groceries have gone up, the price of living, and the fact that now [we're not] bulk billed with doctors, it does make it a lot harder," she said.

"Now we just have to be a bit more mindful with spending, and if we do have an appointment coming up, we just have to make sure we account for it."

The 26-year-old is also concerned about the state's doctor shortage after having to wait two weeks before her son Ryder could be seen by a GP for his sinus infection.  

"It does make it a bit scary to think what if he was quite sick and needed antibiotics quite quickly, but he couldn't get in for two weeks," she said.

GPs Left with No Choice  

Doctor Lewis MacKinnon, who treats patients at his Armadale clinic in Perth's south, is one of many GP clinics across the state that have recently changed their billing model in favor of privately charging patients.

He said the current funding system has become unsustainable. "Obviously that's something that goes against our nature, to make it more difficult to access healthcare, because you now need to consider your economic circumstances," he said.

"Investing in general practice and preventative healthcare may not seem particularly sexy, but that's what saves lives, that's what prevents admissions, and that's what improves patient outcomes," he stated.

"But at the end of the day, the government hasn't kept pace with medical inflation, and patients are the ones that are losing out."

Last month, the Australian federal government increased the Medicare rebate by 1.6 percent, after it was frozen for more than a decade.

But Dr. MacKinnon said that was not nearly enough to cover rising costs.

"Traditionally, we tried to bulk bill everybody that attended our clinic," he said.

"But now we private bill everyone who joins our practice, regardless of income status, because unfortunately we can't afford to pass on huge discounts, which is really what the government expects us to do with such a paltry Medicare rebate." 

"I worry about patients avoiding getting the help that they need and maybe having a worse clinical outcome," he stressed.  "And I think the government needs to think very seriously about the role that funding has in that."

Vulnerable Patients Losing Out
 
Emily, 34, relies on regular doctor's visits to obtain prescriptions for ADHD medication. 

But since moving to Perth two years ago, she has changed GPs nine times after each one stopped bulk billing.

"I don't have the funds for it … to have that added $100 or so on to my weekly or monthly spend if I needed to see the doctor, it's been a huge hardship to take on, plus the added stress of trying to squeeze into an appointment," she said.

Emily said it was disappointing that vulnerable Australians would be left without access to affordable, basic healthcare.

"I'm very passionate about the system that we all contribute to in Australia, and I was under this impression that we're a country where we pride ourselves on our Medicare and it was something I was quite proud about," she said. 

"Seeing friends in the U.S. where they don't have this sort of care and it's a really burdened system, it's really sad to say that this is starting to happen here."

Investment Needed to Save Lives 

Doctor Ramya Raman, the Western Australia (WA) chair of the Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP), said the increasing number of GPs moving away from bulk billing had been a "predicted storm" due to economic pressures.

"We need to be able to retain and attract the best staff that we possibly can. We've got utilities, rent, medical supplies [and] medical insurances," she said.

"We also need to keep up with the inflation rates and the costs that are involved, [but] with the lack of Medicare patient rebate indexation, that hasn't been happening and it's been really challenging … it's got to the point where things are becoming unsustainable."

WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said the issue had added pressure on already stretched emergency departments.

"There is a significant lack of primary healthcare in WA. It's around the country, but it is particularly acute in WA and if you can't get access to a GP, you go to an emergency department, and that's what we're seeing here," she said.

The Australian federal government has promised to deliver at least 50 bulk-billed urgent care medical centers across Australia over the next four years.

The clinics would be based at GP surgeries and community health centers in at least seven locations across WA to help alleviate the state's besieged hospital system.

But Dr. Raman said more investment into existing general practice was needed.

"And as GPs, it is about being valued for what we do."

Source: abc.net.au