Image for Seven per cent can’t afford the doctor

In a single year, seven per cent of Tasmanian adults were prevented from going to a GP because of cost.

And as the federal government’s Medicare cuts bite harder, that number can be expected to rise.

New official figures from the National Health Performance Authority show the extent to which Tasmanians can no longer afford GP care is one of the highest of any region in the nation.

The figures confirm earlier data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that large numbers of people are avoiding needed medical care because of cost. But the new figures are the most detailed so far, showing the situation in every Medicare Local area in Australia.

Tasmania’s Medicare Local covers the whole state.

The data, for 2012-13, refer to the time before the present federal government was elected and before its Medicare cost reductions were proposed. The current situation is likely to be worse.

For patients who are not bulk-billed, GPs usually charge at least $30 over the Medicare rate for a standard consultation.

And Tasmania’s bulk-billing rates in general practice are among the third-lowest in the nation, after WA and the ACT. In 2012-13 we had a primary care bulk billing rate of 77.3%.

That’s against 86.8% for NSW, 82.1% for Victoria and 82.9% for Queensland. The national average was 82.2%.

This means more Tasmanians are hit with a co-payment to their GP, above the amount they get back from Medicare.

The new figures also show that 6% of Tasmanian adults did not see or delayed seeing a medical specialist because of cost.

The new figures also show that 6% of Tasmanian adults did not see or delayed seeing a medical specialist because of cost.

But these figures do not reveal a sudden influx into hospital emergency departments. The rate at which people in this state go to emergency, including for ‘GP-type’ conditions, is fairly low by national standards. This means substantial numbers of Tasmanians are missing out altogether on medical care.

As out-of-pocket charges increase, the number of people avoiding care because of cost is likely to increase. Although the Abbott government has now dropped its plans for a $7 Medicare co-payment and a $5 reduction in the rebate, an even more damaging measure remains in place.

In November 2012, in its dying days, the Gillard government decided to freeze Medicare rebates at their 2011 level, instead of increasing it according to an indexation formula. The present government is continuing the freeze at least until 2018.

According to the Grattan Institute, this will amount to 6.8% of GP revenue by 2018 ‒ a bigger slug than the $7 co-payment or the $5 rebate cut put together.

Those measures would have applied only to non-concessional patients. The rebate freeze applies to everyone.

Most practices will be either unwilling or unable to absorb such a cost and will pass it on to their patients.