Proposal to slug patients $7 GP fee 'stupid on so many levels'

THERE is no positive that could come from government plans to charge people $7 to see a doctor, according to local doctors, practice managers and clinic owners. 

Dr Tony Bongiorno is concerned for patients’ health after the planned introduction of fees. PICTURE: LACHLAN BENCE

Dr Tony Bongiorno is concerned for patients’ health after the planned introduction of fees. PICTURE: LACHLAN BENCE

Confirmed in the federal government’s recent budget, the controversial plan, if passed by the Senate, would see patients having to pay a $7 fee to visit a doctor. 

Ballarat’s medical fraternity rejected the proposal on Friday, with many calling it unfair, poorly thought out and dangerous.

UFS medical adviser, Dr Tony Bongiorno, a general practitioner in Ballarat for almost 30 years, said the proposal defied belief. 

“It really is hard to believe that they (the government) are even contemplating such a move,” he said on Friday.

“This is potentially devastating legislation that will sadly affect the most vulnerable and poor people in our community.

“No one has though this through ... it is just stupid on so many levels.”

In a candid interview with The Courier, Dr Bongiorno said there was no upside to the proposed fee, adding the community’s heath would suffer as a result. 

“If this gets through, we’ll see sick people presenting to doctors or emergency later, often when it’s too late,” he said.

“So you’ll have people who are already struggling, who have been shunned by the emergency department, shunned by outpatients, and then suddenly they have nowhere to go because they can’t afford the fee.

“We’re not living in some Third World country in Africa, we’re living in Australia.”

In an opinion piece published in The Courier today, Dr Bongiorno outlines the “demeaning” policy.

“The whole idea behind it is to discourage people who are poor and unwell from going to the doctor ... that is how sad, mean and demeaning the policy in essence boils down to,” he writes. 

“It is bizarre that a country as lucky as Australia is now creating such suffering for the less privileged.” Under the proposal, pensioners and concession-card holders would be exempt from the fee, while families would be granted up to 12 bulk-billed visits annually.

Other medical professionals on Friday referred to the fact that such a proposal didn’t make sense from a business point of view. 

“This would obviously put huge pressure on the people and families who already can’t afford it,” said Ballarat Community Health’s client services manager, Jane Measday. 

“But it also adds a real administrative burden for the practices trying to figure out what to do with the payments. “It’s all so unclear still, but sounds like we will need more resources at some level in order to meet the requirements.”

Another bulk billing clinic owner, who didn’t want to be named, said it was a government “rort” which would see local business owners forced to act as tax collectors on behalf of the government. 

In a similar sentiment, Medicaid owner Dr Carl Grace said many bulk billing clinics would go under. 

“We will be basically paying the government to collect their taxes,” he said. 

“I will have to set up more infrastructure to collect the money and then send it on to Canberra.

“Why should I collect tax for the government?”

Dr Grace said the proposal would send already busy clinics into “chaos”.

Ballarat Health Services chief executive officer Andrew Rowe said the hospital was concerned about the potential impact of a fee for patients attending GPs. 

“The co-payment will have the impact of driving some patients from seeking treatment from their general practitioner to attend the BHS Emergency Department,” Mr Rowe said.

“A significant influx of patients more appropriately treated in a GP setting would create significant pressure on the ED and this would likely cause an increase in waiting times.”

patrick.byrne@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Dr Bongiorno’s opinion piece, page 25

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