Medicare rebates thaw out for seniors

THE financial stress of visiting the doctor is about to lifted from your shoulders with senior patients to expect more bulk billing as the freeze on Medicare rebates are partially unfrozen.

The changes, announced in last month's Federal Budget, will give bulk billing doctors a slight payrise as the rebate is once more indexed to inflation.

However, the rebate for standard doctor visits won't be unfrozen until next July and specialists will have to wait until 2019.

Lifting the Medicare rebate freeze, which was introduced by the former Labor government and continued under the Coalition, will cost the government $1 billion over three years.

"(Health) Minister (Greg) Hunt said from day one in the job that he would listen and learn from the people who work in the health system every day about what is best for patients, and he has delivered tonight," Australian Medical Association president Dr Michael Gannon said last month.

"The AMA would have preferred to see the Medicare freeze lifted across the board from 1 July 2017, but we acknowledge that the three-stage process will provide GPs and other specialists with certainty and security about their practices, and will help address rising out-of-pocket costs for patients. Lifting the Medicare rebate freeze is overdue, but we welcome it."

The government also decided to reverse proposed cuts to bulk billing incentives for diagnostic imaging and pathology services.

Writing in The Conversation, Stephen Duckett, health program director at progressive Grattan Institute think tank, said regardless of the reaction from the medical lobby, it was "too early to tell" whether the "glacially slow" reintroduction of indexation would be enough to keep bulk-billing rates at their current levels.

"Practice costs and income expectations of staff have not increased dramatically over the freeze period as the Consumer Price Index has been moving slowly," he wrote. "But each additional day of a freeze means costs and revenues fall further out of alignment.

"The jury will be out for a while on whether reintroduction of indexation is enough to restore the Coalition's tarnished Medicare credentials with voters. Certainly, the slow phase-in may attract cynicism, with a legitimate perception the government is doing the minimum necessary and at the slowest pace to ensure the issue is off the agenda before a 2019 election."

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