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Monday, 8 March 1999
Page: 2319

Senator GIBBS —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Could the minister explain what action the government is taking to halt the decline in bulk billing which, in the December 1998 quarter, fell to its lowest rate in three years?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank Senator Gibbs for the question. There has been no mass exodus from bulk billing. Bulk billing levels are still close to their historical peak levels. Individual doctors, especially GPs, may change their bulk billing practices by either increasing or reducing rates in response to a wide range of business pressures. Competition with other GPs remains the primary influence on whether or not GPs bulk bill. Senator Gibbs would be aware that, in her own town of Ipswich, the rate is much higher than it is in country areas. The percentage of all services bulk billed has been steady at an average annual rate of 71.8 per cent for the last two calendar years—its highest level ever. For GP services, the figure for 1998 is 79.5 per cent, marginally below the peak level. This government remains firmly committed to Medicare, preserving it in full, including our commitment to bulk billing, which remains central to Medicare. We have no intention of weakening Medicare by the introduction of patient co-payments for bulk billed services.

To ensure that the Australian public continues to have high level bulk billed access to GP services, this government, in the last budget, provided an additional $127 million to increase the scheduled fee for a GP attendance. The first instalment of this increase was introduced on 1 November 1998 with an additional increase provided on the first of this month. The government is engaged in negotiations with the medical profession on the possibility of a general practice financing agreement to further strengthen and modernise Medicare and so protect bulk billing into the future. The end of bulk billing, which we seem to have heard so much about lately, has clearly not arrived.

Senator GIBBS —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. If the minister thinks that there has not been a decline in bulk billing, can he confirm that the 1.6 per cent drop in bulk billing rates over the two years from 1996 to 1998 represents an extra 400,000 GP services a year for which patients have to pay out of their own pockets? I ask again: what action the government is taking to halt this decline?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —Madam President, there is a false premise in the question from Senator Gibbs. The patients do not have to pay; they can go to another doctor who bulk bills. We have freedom of choice in this country. Patients may or may not wish to go. It is obvious that Senator Gibbs does not understand. In her own town of Ipswich there is probably a 90 per cent bulk billing rate. If you want a doctor who bulk bills and that is your wish, then you should go and find one.