COMMENT: Medicare freeze is ice cold for struggling residents

It’s been a cold time for many residents.

The Medicare rebate freeze has been a contentious issue in the region since patients began to be forced to pay more out of pocket in 2013.

We were told it was “temporary”, but how long is temporary in the world of Australian politics?

Even news it will be slowly lifted in the future hasn’t created much positivity for the region’s most underprivileged households.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners labelled the freeze a “co-payment by stealth”, and health professionals are saying there is some evidence it has lead to many people avoiding their doctors.

New Bureau of Health Information data on the performance of the state’s public healthcare system showing many patients are presenting to the regional hospital’s emergency department with “non-emergency” conditions.

So is the state paying for the Commonwealth’s cost cutting?

Twelve months ago Newcastle MP and former Tulgeen Disability Services worker Sharon Claydon said the Bega Valley had the second lowest bulk billing rate in the state, and sat in the lowest band nationally.

A local pharmacist said the profession has been forced to deal with many tasks once done by general practitioners, and the affordability of prescriptions are becoming an issue for many low income families.

Then federal health minister Sussan Ley visited Bega in 2015 to discuss the issue with a room full of confused and anxious local doctors and pharmacists, and openly said the concept of a “GP co-payment was not going down well” politically in Eden-Monaro.

Even then doctors wanted answers on issues such as the freeze, the affordability of medicine for the underprivileged, the sustainability of small local practices, policies for ageing populations, and the fact doctors were being made aware of government changes by their patients and the media.

According to the RACGP, “Medicare rebates have never kept pace with the cost of living and have never covered the true cost of delivering quality medical care”. 

The issue spans different governments with different personalities and ideologies.

And with a medical practitioner obviously not having the time to run for prime minister or state leader it is likely to continue for some time to come.

- Alasdair McDonald