From January 19, the Medicare rebate paid to doctors for consultations lasting up to 10 minutes is dropping from $37.05 to $16.95 — and Queensland’s top doc says the effect on the health system could be disastrous.

Dr Shaun Rudd, a Hervey Bay GP and the President of AMA (Australian Medical Association) Queensland, says the change will leave doctors and their patients worse off.

“The problem is, of course, if you reduce the rebate from $37 to $16, it’s going to be very hard for any doctor to bulk bill patients when they’re doing consultations for less than 10 minutes,” Dr Rudd says.

“If that’s the case, then they will have to charge the patients, and if they do that, there will be a number of people who won’t go to see the doctor, or will go straight to the local emergency department instead.

“If patients put off seeing a doctor, they could end up in hospital, and that becomes a very costly process, both to their health and to the taxpayer.”

The change was announced two days before Christmas, and went largely unnoticed at the time. From January 19, if your doctor bulk bills, they will receive $20.05 less for a consultation lasting up to 10 minutes. If your doctor charges you a fee, you’ll get $20.05 less back from Medicare, increasing your ‘gap fee’ by that amount.

In the last financial year, about 26 per cent of the consultations billed to Medicare lasted less than 10 minutes.

The government says the reduction in the rebate will save $3.5 billion by 2018 and will combat “six-minute medicine”, the practice of doctors rushing patients through the door to increase revenue, but Dr Rudd says this problem has been overblown.

“‘Six minute medicine’ is a bit of a furfy because we’re also talking about consultations that last eight or nine minutes, and if you’re an experienced GP who knows your patient and their medical history well, you can sort out their problem in that sort of time frame.

“Instead of getting a rebate of $37.05 for providing that service, you’ll get a rebate of $16.95, and when 1 July comes around and that reduction comes in as well [Medicare rebates for all GP consultations will be cut by a further $5 for non-concessional patients from July 1], you’ll actually get $11.95 for that consultation, which is very much devaluing the expertise of general practice.

“It’s like the government is saying, ‘You’re not worth very much and we don’t really care much about you’.”

Dr Rudd says the government did not consult with doctors before announcing the change.

“There was absolutely no consultation whatsoever, which is very disappointing. I don’t think anybody really thought this through, and thought about what it would actually mean. At this stage, most general practitioners aren’t really sure what it’s going to mean to them. They’ll have to sit down and work out what this will mean for their practice and what they’ll have to do. They’ll have to decide if they’re going to stop bulk billing altogether, or if they’re going to increase the length of their consultations and see less patients.

“It’s a very difficult one, and I don’t think the government has thought this through at all! There are a lot of very unhappy and very angry GPs out there, and they’re not a group the government should play around with and devalue like this.”

Will the change to the Medicare rebate discourage you from seeing a doctor? Let us know in the comments below!