Doctors could be forced to churn through patients more quickly in order to absorb cuts to their income linked to the proposed $7 Medicare fee, the new federal president of the Australian Medical Association has warned.
Brian Owler, a Sydney neurosurgeon widely known as the face of the ''Don't Rush'' road safety campaign, said he was concerned the introduction of the fee could hurt the quality of care delivered by doctors, particularly those serving poorer communities where patients would not be able to afford to pay.
From July next year, the government plans to cut the Medicare rebate for a GP consultation by $5, and encourage doctors to charge a $7 fee. As part of the changes, the $6 incentive currently paid to a doctor whenever they bulk-bill a patient will only be paid when the doctor charges the $7 fee, and only when the patient is a child or concession card holder.
Health Minister Peter Dutton has argued doctors will retain the discretion to bulk-bill patients, but under the changes a doctor who does so would receive $11 less per consultation than they would under the current arrangements.
Associate Professor Owler said doctors in disadvantaged areas would face pressure from their patients to continue bulk-billing, despite the cut to their income.
''If a large proportion of their patients can't afford to pay the co-payment, then those practices might still be bulk-billing, but it will be the GP that bears the cost, and who will be financially worse off,'' he said. ''And the only way they could do it would be to see more patients.
''Instead of doing six-minute medicine, they'll go to four-minute medicine. That's not something that we want to see happening.''
Professor Owler's comments are at odds with those of Mr Dutton, who said revenue from the $7 fee would provide a ''significant windfall'' for doctors that would allow them to spend longer with patients, rather than ''churning people through every six minutes''.
Mr Dutton said the fee would ''drive better health outcomes,'' because it would reduce the number of ''marginal attendances'' and make it easier for people to get an appointment.
Asked to respond to Professor Owler's comments, Mr Dutton said: ''I believe that doctors will act in the best interests of their patients. However, as is the case today, the amount they choose to charge is totally their prerogative.''
Professor Owler met Mr Dutton last week in Canberra to discuss the AMA's concerns. He said the AMA was not opposed to co-payments in principle but was worried about the impact the proposal would have on vulnerable patients and on the viability of medical practices as well as pathology and diagnostic imaging services, which will also be affected by the $7 fee.
The story Doctors under pressure to bear cost of scheme, AMA warns first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.