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Tuesday, 21 August 1984
Page: 11

Senator GILES —Has the Minister representing the Minister for Health been made aware of the anxiety engendered in the small country town of Pingelly in Western Australia where the only doctor faces disqualification from Medicare for three years for what is being described as a minor infringement of the law? Is the Federal Government able to ensure that the people of Pingelly are not deprived of medical care and that the local hospital is kept functioning both as a service to the community and as an important source of employment in the town?

Senator GRIMES —As Senator Giles said, attention has been drawn, through the 60 Minutes program, to the fact that a Dr Hood will be suspended from Medicare because of offences that he committed under the health insurance legislation. The offences were that he charged $5 per patient on top of direct billing the patient. The fact is that the profession, the public in general and I believe everyone in this country have been clearly, repeatedly and consistently advised that when the Medicare legislation was going through and before and after that no fee would be paid by the patient if the doctor direct billed or bulk billed as it is called under Medicare. The doctor concerned was provided with a letter from the State Manager of Medicare in Western Australia when he received his Medicare stationery. The letter stated:

If a practitioner accepts patient assignments of a right to benefit from his services, no additional charges may be made by the practitioner to the patient concerning that service.

The letter also invited medical practitioners to follow up any inquiries they may have had on a telephone hot line. In the pamphlet that was provided to every citizen in this country, it was stated:

When doctors direct bill they accept 85 per cent of the schedule fee as full payment and the patient is charged nothing.

Dr Hood apparently wanted to enjoy the real advantages of direct billing, and there are real advantages of direct billing, both financial and administrative, although this was not brought out on the television program, and yet he wanted to receive at the same time the higher Australian Medical Association rate of charge for his medical services. In signing the Medicare claim form for assigned patients, the form DB1, immediately above the doctor's signature is the statement 'No payments have been sought from the . . . patients for the provision of services supplied in the attached assignment forms'.

The disqualification provisions of the Health Insurance Act under which the doctor will be disqualified were, in fact, introduced by the previous Government and took effect from 1 November 1982. They were proposed by the then Liberal and Country Party Government as a measure necessary to reduce medical fraud. All doctors were advised by letter when this legislation was passed and the then Minister for Health, Mr Carlton, issued a Press statement on 1 November 1982 stating that 'a medical practitioner found guilty of two or more offences of medical benefits fraud would be excluded automatically from medical benefits arrangements for three years'. In Dr Hood's case, the magistrate actually recorded convictions on five cases of fraud.

The Minister for Health, Dr Blewett, has contacted the Western Australian State Health Minister and has established that the Western Australian health authorities are taking appropriate steps to ensure that medical services will continue to be available for the residents of Pingelly. Mr Carlton made it clear when he was Minister in the previous Government that he would intervene only from a wish to protect patients, not practitioners. The present Government and the present Minister endorse that statement. For the majority of practitioners in this country there is nothing to fear from the provision which Mr Carlton and the previous Government introduced.

Finally, I would point out that the doctor concerned has not been singled out. In the last four years 76 medical practitioners have been prosecuted, all but 15 of them successfully. There are now four doctors subject to disqualification, with a further 50 with the police or the Director of Public Prosecutions. After fully reviewing the effects of the case, the Government and the Minister are satisfied that the doctor has not been harshly dealt with, given the nature of the offences he has committed. Bearing in mind that the Western Australian Government has guaranteed that the people of Pingelly will not be disadvantaged, under the circumstances the Minister has no intention of reversing the disqualification.