Medicare’s 40th marked as Feds push to increase bulk bill rates

February 9, 2024 BY

Takes the cake: Local urgent care clinic patient Shirley Toulmin joined John Mildren who was the Member for Ballarat when Medicare was launched 40 years, and current MP Catherine King at a celebration for the scheme last week. Photo: SUPPLIED

FORTY years of the nation’s socialised medicine program, Medicare, has been celebrated locally, but the Federal health minister has sounded a warning over the future of the scheme.

IN Ballarat local MP Catherine King headed to the city’s urgent care clinic to mark the occasion.

“Happy birthday, Medicare,” she said. “It’s 40 years since Medicare started.

“It was a huge initiative of a Federal Labor Government and to hear some of the stories today about what life was like before Medicare.

“We take it for granted, it’s important that we never do that, that we take every opportunity to strengthen it but also to celebrate how important it’s been to the provision of universal health care here in Australia.

“Affordable hospital treatment, access to GPs and access to specialists has been part of the hallmark for Medicare for 40 years.”

Yet while marking the occasion nationally, Federal health minister Mark Butler said Medicare is still under attack with GP clinics are facing the most uncertainty since the beginning of the scheme.

Mr Butler has called for more GPs to offer up greater bulk billing rates for patients, following a tripling of the bulk billing incentive, which started last November.

Mr Butler said while there had been an uptick in bulk billing rates following the incentive, more was needed to be done.

“General practice, I think, has been in the most parlous state in the now 40-year history of Medicare, and that is why, unapologetically, we have focused so squarely on getting general practice back in its feet,” he said.

“When a general practice is not working, you see that reverberate through hospital emergency departments.”

Mr Butler said there had been anecdotal evidence of a return to GPs offering bulk billing to concession card holders, children and pensioners after the incentive was tripled.

However, he said the Government was looking at improving bulk billing further at clinics, particularly those who don’t offer it.

“We’re monitoring this really closely, we know healthcare is important, and we simply can’t have a situation where Australians feel unable to take medicines their doctors have prescribed for them or feel unable to go to a doctor because of affordability questions,” he said.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on gap fees, on general practice charging behaviour right across the population.”

The minister indicated data would be coming through about bulk billing rates following the incentive changes.

It comes as a commemorative version of the Medicare card will be available from Thursday to mark the 40th anniversary of the health scheme.

Like standard Medicare cards, the commemorative ones will be valid for five years.

Mr Butler said the new cards will join the 15 million other standard Medicare cards in circulation that provide free or subsided healthcare for Australians.

“Along with the age pension, perhaps there is no more important element in Australia’s social fabric than Medicare,” Mr Butler said.

“Forty years on, it’s important to recognise … that it was hard fought.

“Universal health insurance was perhaps the most defining fault line in national politics in this country since the late 1960s.”

Medicare began operations on 1 February 1984, under the Hawke Government, under a similar health care system to the original Medibank scheme set up by then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

An exhibition will also go on display marking the anniversary, first at Parliament House in Canberra before travelling to other centres across Australia.