Govt's proposal to end free GP visits slammed by doctors

02 January, 2014

A recent proposal by the federal government to charge fees for GP visits has been slammed by doctors, saying such a measure would place even greater pressure on public hospitals.

The Doctors Reform Society (DRS) has called on Health Minister Peter Dutton to rule out changes to Medicare including co-payments for GP visits and charges for attending emergency departments (EDs).

"Proponents of the GP co-payment are admitting that such a co-payment would be a disincentive for people seeing their family GP and lead to a run on hospital EDs as people seek to avoid the co-payment," Dr Con Costa, DRS president said in a recent statement. 

"This alone would be a strong argument against a co-payment … our public hospitals are already overcrowded with more serious-type emergency cases.

"It is not just a question of attempted cost shifting by the federal government. Our hospital EDs can't take over the role of the family GP. 

"EDs can't provide immunisation or preventive women's health checks or monitor diabetes or high blood pressure patients. There would be no continuity and no cumulative memory if people are driven to seek their routine medical care in the hospital ED."

Dr Costa asserted a "fair and realistic way" for the government to save money lay in community-based care where chronic or advanced illness could be tackled through early intervention and effective management rather than "expensive" hospital-based involvement.

"We have a broken system where most GPs are seeing patients only in their surgeries yet those with complex illness in the community — the elderly in nursing homes, the dying who are in desperate need of palliative care or those who are too sick to get to the doctor's office — are simply going without care or end up yo-yoing back and forth to the public hospital EDs in an ambulance.

"It is a crazy and heartless statement to portray these patients as needing a 'price signal' to deter them from seeing their GP too often. 

"These patients often don't have a GP or are so seriously underserviced that they have no alternative but to call an ambulance … sometimes on a weekly basis."