Costs up, bulk-billing down

La Trobe MP Jason Wood, whose electorate saw a decline in the number of bulk-billing clinics, said a weakened primary care system would also place additional pressure on already over-burdened hospitals. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

By Matt Male

It costs more than $36 to see a GP locally, new data shows, amid a drop in the number of clinics offering bulk-billing.

But a local MP has warned rising costs to see a doctor means people are choosing between putting food on the table and visiting their GP.

New data shows fewer clinics are bulk-billing in the Federal electorate of La Trobe, which covers almost all of Cardinia Shire, as well as parts of Berwick, Harkaway and Clyde North.

The number of clinics offering bulk-billing for adults without concession dropped from 51.4 per cent to 37.1 per cent in the electorate – representing a more than 27 per cent decline.

The data from healthcare directory Cleanbill, which compared 2022-23 data to 2023-24, also found that for those who don’t see a bulk-billing GP, the average out-of-pocket cost is on average $36.40.

La Trobe MP Jason Wood said 1.2 million Australians avoided seeing a doctor last year due to cost, “as they were forced to choose between putting food on the table and paying their bills or visiting their GP”.

“Recent reports show that Australians have lost access to more than 400 dedicated bulk-billing GP clinics over the past 12 months, while the number of Australians who are accessing bulk-billed GP appointments is currently at the lowest level in a decade,” the Liberal MP said.

There is also concern about the strain on the hospital system when people attend emergency departments for issues which have compounded after not seeing a GP.

Data and Medicare

The Cleanbill data only looked at if a new adult patient without concession would be bulk-billed, with founder James Gillespie telling the ABC the data was not intended to reflect bulk-billing rates for all patients but rather shed light on the bulk-billing services available to a typical adult without concessions.

In November 2023, the Federal Government tripled the incentive that general practitioners would receive to bulk bill children under 16, pensioners and other Commonwealth concession cardholders for most common GP consults – as well as a boost to the indexation of Medicare payments.

In the two months since the change, the GP bulk-billing rate rose by 2.1 percentage points, the government said.

“The increase in bulk billing is across all states and territories, including in La Trobe, with GP clinics around the country making the shift back to bulk billing,” Health Minister Mark Butler said.

Mr Butler said the government had established bulk-billed Medicare Urgent Care Clinics across Australia, with all 58 Medicare UCCs now open, including 10 in Victoria. They are for urgent issues that need seeing to after hours and on weekends, and are walk-in and bulk-billed.

Meanwhile, an ongoing row over payroll tax could also see higher out-of-pocket fees for patients and more emergency department visits, the opposition and peak GP groups have warned, after a State Revenue Office (SRO) ruling paved the way for contracted doctors to be subject to payroll tax.

Although some clinics are set to challenge compliance notices from the SRO, it has been reported.