Australians could pay more for a short visit to the doctor from next week – but possibly not for long.
The Greens and Labor want to disallow the Abbott government’s “sneaky” pre-Christmas change to the rebate system for GP visits.
The motion would need four more votes to pass and already has support from independent senators Jacqui Lambie and Nick Xenophon. Motoring Enthusiast senator Ricky Muir is likely to support the motion which also reportedly has support from Palmer United party senator Glenn Lazarus.
“I think this measure is pretty much terminal,” Senator Xenophon told reporters in Adelaide.
From Monday, the rebate for appointments lasting under 10 minutes will be cut from $37.05 to $16.95, and doctors are warning they may pass that cost to patients.
The government tabled the change as a regulation before Christmas, so it will remain in force unless overturned after the Senate returns on February 9.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott insists the changes are designed to improve care and ensure doctors spend more time with their patients.
Medicare had to be sustainable, he said.
“I say to all of the critics: `If you don’t like what we are doing, come up with your alternative because we simply cannot go on as a government, and as a country, living beyond our means’,” he said.
AMA president Brian Owler said the rebate cut had nothing to do with improving the quality of care or tackling six-minute medicine.
“It is about grabbing $1.3 billion from patients and family doctors to improve the budget,” Associate Professor Owler said in a statement.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called it a “sneak attack” on Medicare.
“Our position is unequivocal, it’s in black and white,” Mr Shorten said.
“We will oppose Tony Abbott absolutely changing the rebate system for our GPs, making it a lot harder and through this sneaky back-door method,” he told reporters in Queensland.
Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told ABC 24 he believed new Health Minister Sussan Ley could negotiate Senate support.
But Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm was a rare voice backing the government on Wednesday. Family First’s Bob Day also supports the government.
Senator Leyonhjelm says he doesn’t believe doctors will pass on the cost.
“I’m not influenced by the AMA – it’s just basically a union for doctors,” he told AAP by phone from India, where he is on holiday.
“Their argument is that they will make less money, therefore they will have to charge their patients.
“Well, that was the government’s intention and I don’t see any problem with that. The objective is to get over this idea that health care can be free.”
Senator Xenophon says overturning the regulation could cause some chaos, but not as much as not disallowing it would create in the public hospital system and the way medicine is practised.
A further $5 cut to GP rebates comes in from July 1, on top of a near-six-year freeze on Medicare rebate indexation.