Private GP visits trial—Americanisation by stealth

Since November 2013 Australia’s largest private health insurer, Medibank Private, has been operating a “trial” allowing its members to get priority deluxe GP services at six clinics in Queensland. With over 30,000 consultations already completed, the scheme represents the introduction of a US-style two-tiered primary healthcare system by stealth.

The expansion of private insurers into GP clinics is only one part of the Abbott government’s agenda to privatise the heart of Australia’s healthcare system. Greens Senator Richard Di Natale has proposed legislation to ban the Medibank Private scheme. This should be supported as part of the fight against the GP co-payment, the sell-off of Medicare processing systems, and the building of new private hospitals such as the proposed Frenchs Forest hospital in Sydney’s north.

Current legislation bans private health insurers from funding GP consultations and other services covered by Medicare. But by offering priority same-day appointments, after-hours home visits and free consultations in return for funding clinics’ administrative costs, Medibank Private have squeezed through a legislative loophole. They have announced plans to roll this model out across the country in November. This expansion, a month before the company is set to be sold off, is aimed at increasing the worth of the company.

Health Minister Peter Dutton has given tacit approval for the trial and is clearly lining up to push private health insurance into the primary care sector.

Health economists such as Jeff Richardson, of the Centre for Health economics at Monash University, have shown that private health insurance involvement in general practice would lead to price explosions.

The Australian Dental Association backed this up in their evidence to last month’s Senate inquiry into the trial, showing how costs have risen drastically in dental care since private health insurers have had a role in deciding which dentists patients could see and what treatments they could get. If private insurers are allowed into GP services we could end up with the exclusion of the uninsured from primary care.

Private health insurers are claiming their plan will encourage GP visits reducing the chronic disease and hospitalisations that are so costly in the long run. Funnily enough, this is the reason the public health sector is opposed to the GP co-payment, which aims to use price signals to decrease GP access.

Increasing access to primary care will be achieved by keeping private profiteers out of it and extending Medicare’s coverage to services that are now hugely expensive, such as prescription medication and specialist visits. Australia already has the highest out-of-pocket health expenses of any OECD country except the US.

By Jean Parker

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