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AMA rejects medical indemnity offers proposed by Health Minister.

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Thursday 9 October 2003

AMA rejects medical indemnity offers proposed by Health Minister


PETER CAVE: Doctors have not accepted an offer put to them today by Health Ministe r Tony Abbott, aimed at resolving the medical indemnity issue. AMA President Bill Glasson came to Canberra this morning warning that the crisis was deepening as more and more doctors threaten to quit.  


Around 1,700 salaried doctors in New South Wales say they'll take action, joining the specialists who've already announced their decision. At the moment the mass resignations are limited to Queensland and New South Wales, but the AMA says it could spread to other states. 


We're joined in our Canberra studio by Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath. 


Catherine, you're just back from those talks, what's going on? 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Peter, that's right. The talks broke just a short time ago. Now, Bill Glasson, as you said, came down today to Canberra to meet with the Health Minister, Tony Abbott. The aim of the talks was to actually receive an offer put by Tony Abbott to them that would resolve this crisis. 


Now, the current crisis is really about the doctors' indemnity levy that they have to pay, but remember there's the wider issue as well, of the whole future of the funding of Medicare. But it was really the levy today that was the focus, and doctors went into that meeting wanting two key things really - they want the levy addressed, but they also want the statute of limitations altered. 


Now, they received some progress on the levy issue, and we'll hear the details of the that in a moment, but on the statute of limitations they haven't received any progress, so the AMA is saying at this stage they're not accepting what the Minister has said, and they're really not commenting yet on whether those doctors who have threatened to resign will make good those resignations. Remember, the Prime Minister this morning called on those doctors to not leave the hospitals while these negotiations are still underway. 


A short time ago Bill Glasson spoke to reporters, and this is what he said. 


BILL GLASSON: Well, at this stage we've got, first of all they've offered to withdraw the levy notices across the board. So the levy notices that are currently out there will be withdrawn and they will be re-evaluated further down the line. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: So it's even those under $1,000? 


BILL GLASSON: Yes, yes. 


REPORTER: So doctors won't have to pay a cent? 


BILL GLASSON: Doctors will have to pay a cent, but not just at the moment, until we've actually got the reforms in place that we're asking for. 


REPORTER: When are they having to pay? 


BILL GLASSON: Well, at this stage there's a suggestion of having an expert committee set up that will report in approximately early December. Those terms of reference are just being laid out at the moment, and that would probably try and address, as I say, some of the broader issues. 


The difficulty is for the doctors at the moment have to make a decision, on are there sufficient structural reforms in place, or being suggested, to allow them to go back to work with the full knowledge that we've got a long-term, affordable and sustainable system? 


REPORTER: And what's the answer to that? 


BILL GLASSON: The answer, at this stage, is really that we have not got enough on the board, and we had a meeting, an urgent meeting of our indemnity taskforce this afternoon, who have agreed at this stage not to progress, not to accept, I suppose, until we have a full, I suppose, package outlined. 


Now, we're going to meet up with the Minister again tomorrow, we're going to work on this issue, particularly of the limitation, the statute limitations, in other words the timeframe over which doctors can be sued - that has to be restricted down to what we say is three years for adults and six years for children. If the profession and patients are expected to insure beyond that, then essentially the system becomes unaffordable. 


If we can get that in place, that will have major ramifications in relation to the insurance that patients have to pay, and as I say, the importance also of people that die, that are disabled or retire out of the system. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: So at this stage, in relation to the request that doctors stay at their post until this is sorted out, what are doctors going to do? 


BILL GLASSON: At the moment we're still in negotiating phase, as I say. We've just had a further constructive half-an-hour with the Minister. We've made it very clear to the Minister that we need to move forward on this issue. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: But are doctors who are saying they're going to go still going to go? 


BILL GLASSON: Well, at this stage, the general membership has not been fully notified, so we'll wait to hear from them. Obviously we need to inform them, probably as of tomorrow, what we have gained for them, and allow them to make that decision. It's their decision finally as to whether they're going to continue at work or whether they are going to, you know, retire out of the system. 


PETER CAVE: The AMA President Bill Glasson.  


Catherine, what has Mr Abbott had to say? 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, we haven't actually heard publicly from Mr Abbott since the AMA announced this - it's only just recently happened. But interestingly enough, in Question Time this afternoon, Peter, definitely the rhetoric, the words coming from Tony Abbott were very much of a different tone. 


Now, remember he was only sworn into this job on Tuesday, and since the reshuffle was announced he's been very conciliatory towards the doctors, saying very much that he wants to solve this, and he understands the depth of some of the problem.  


But today there was a very different message coming from him, and definitely sending the signal aware that the doctors clearly had not accepted his offer. There was a very different message from Tony Abbott, and this is part of what he said today in Question Time. 


TONY ABBOTT: That governments have to make decisions based on the national interest and not the medical interest. The second point I want to make, Mr Speaker, is that no Government will submit to ultimatums from any group, no matter how important. The third point I want to make, Mr Speaker, is that the Government will not give a blank cheque to any group, however worthy that group might be. 


Mr Speaker, I want to make this very clear - this Government will do whatever we reasonably can to produce a fair, sustainable and affordable medical insurance system. We will work to find answers, but those answers have got to be fair to patients, and they've got to be fair to taxpayers, as well as being fair to doctors. 


PETER CAVE: Well, that's what Tony Abbott had to say in Parliament. 


Catherine, what happens next? Is there any room for further negotiations? 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, they meet again tomorrow, Peter, so this will go on. But the key questions now really are the AMA is going to put that to its membership, they'll talk again tomorrow. 


But you heard Tony Abbott there saying "there is no blank cheque," he said. "Whatever we do we will work to find answers, but it must be fair to taxpayers and fair to the doctors". 


So very much a toughening of the line from Tony Abbott, and interestingly enough Peter Costello today was making some of the same points that doctors, he said, are responsible for the medical indemnity issue as well.  


So a tougher line, I think, coming from the Government this afternoon, but doctors are not giving in, they've got a lot of power at the moment, Peter, with those resignations pending. And really, we just have wait and see now whether they can make some agreement when they get back together tomorrow. 


PETER CAVE: What sort of a bill might the Government be expected to pick up? 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, you know, this is really unclear. I mean, it's very clear that the Prime Minister put Tony Abbott in this job to fix this problem, so I think they'll be willing to spend some money if they have to. But the whole thing with indemnity is that the costs could be enormous.  


Now, the doctors are really wanting to focus as well on this issue of ongoing care costs of patients who are injured. They say this cost is so elastic, they say that this is what makes them virtually uninsurable. 


Now, they want the Government to pick up the tab for that, while they say they will accept the payment of damages and pain and suffering. So if the Government pays that, they could be up for an enormous bill, Peter. So there's going to be a lot of tough talking ahead. 


PETER CAVE: Indeed, we'll be following that again tomorrow of course. Catherine McGrath reporting live there from Canberra.