The latest data from the Australian government has revealed a paradox in healthcare trends – while the national GP bulk billing rate has seen a positive uptick, more patients are holding off on medical appointments due to financial concerns.
A Productivity Commission report highlighted a concerning doubling of the number of individuals delaying or completely forgoing appointments, citing the cost as a primary deterrent.
Government data from November 2023 showed a promising 2.1 percentage point increase in the national GP bulk billing rate. Despite this positive development, the Productivity Commission’s report for the 2022/23 period painted a different picture, indicating that 7 per cent of respondents refrained from visiting a GP due to cost, up from 3.5 per cent the previous year.
The situation is particularly pronounced in New South Wales, where the percentage of people delaying doctor visits skyrocketed from 4.4 per cent in 2021/22 to a concerning 9.5 per cent in 2022/23. This trend is unfolding even as the number of GP clinics offering bulk billing has expanded across the nation.
Since November, an additional 360,000 appointments have been bulk billed, following the tripling of incentives for doctors to offer subsidised visits. The Federal Government released figures on Thursday, February 1 coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Medicare, revealing that $15 million in gap fees had been saved since the bulk billing initiatives were intensified.
Health Minister Mark Butler highlighted the positive impact of the financial incentives, especially for clinics and patients.
“The Albanese government committed to making it easier for people to see a bulk billing doctor, and the first two months of data show that is exactly what is happening right around the country, particularly in rural and regional areas,” he said.
“At the same time, general practice incomes have increased.
“This is a win all round, for patients, doctors and the health system, and it is helping to make Medicare stronger than it has ever been since Labor introduced it 40 years ago.”
GPs have benefited from triple incentives to bulk bill patients holding concession cards and children under 16. Further financial incentives are directed towards clinics in regional areas, contributing to the increase in bulk billing.
The number of GP clinics offering bulk billing had increased in every state and territory with Tasmania leading the charge with an impressive surge of 5.7 percentage points, closely followed by South Australia, where clinics have seen a 3.8 percentage point boost.
In the realm of bulk billing champions, New South Wales stands tall, boasting a substantial 82.3 per cent of clinics adopting this patient-friendly approach. Not far behind, Victoria follows suit with 78.3 per cent, while Queensland isn’t far off with a commendable 75.8 per cent.
However, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was found to have the lowest rate for subsidised GP visits. Only 53.4 per cent of clinics in the nation’s capital are currently on board with the bulk billing trend
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) acknowledged the 2.1 per cent increase in bulk billing for vulnerable patients as a sign that boosting Medicare subsidies yields positive outcomes.
RACGP President Nicole Higgins noted, “We called last year’s budget a gamechanger because it was the biggest investment in general practice care in decades. And funding gets results,” Higgins said.
“There is still a long way to go to repair the decades of cuts and neglect.”