TOM CONNELL, HOST: One the government's, well the lead headline, according to the government, was making bulk billing more accessible to Australians. To what extent will that actually happen though? Joining me now on what this will mean in particularly for communities outside capital cities, Assistant Rural and Regional Health Minister, Emma McBride, thanks very much for your time. So the crucial element is getting bulk billing actually going and that's about incentives for GPs. Can I ask you, what is the average charge for a GP appointment in the regions that is not bulk billed, and why will this measure actually increase bulk billing as a result?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well what we've seen after almost a decade of neglect of the former government is GP bulk billing rates just declining all over the country. I was in Tasmania at the Rural Health Conference over the weekend and Tasmania has some of the lowest rates of bulk billing in the country. So what we've done as the government is were investing in tripling the bulk billing incentive, and hearing from doctors who had reluctantly stopped bulk billing or were thinking about not being able to bulk bill anymore, we know that this, from having heard from doctors directly, will be a really strong incentive to allow them to keep bulk billing or to start bulk billing again, and really strengthen the viability of their practices. So, we know that many practices had stopped bulk billing children under 16 or aged pensioners and this is something that we are determined to turn around and the tripling of the bulk billing incentive will benefit almost 11 million Australians right around the country.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: So that's how many will theoretically access it. I can't imagine all 11 million will be getting a bulk billing appointment just to point out on that figure, but going through the math, so you get just under $40 back in terms of Medicare rebate. This will take the bulk billing incentive to about $19. So close to $60. What's the average fee for a GP in the regions?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: We know that people, one of the biggest things is that people can't get into a GP because GPs just aren't bulk billing anymore. The co-payments have risen and people are ending up in emergency departments, which is avoidable. What this investment will mean for a typical level B consult, the rebate plus the tripling of the bulk billing incentive we will see in MM7 areas, the most remote parts of Australia, the government investing more than $80 in a typical, level B consult, the most common consult, so what we know, and from what I've heard from doctors already is that, hearing from Dr Katherine in the Illawarra this morning, she said she now feels optimistic about general practice again for the first time in a very long time. At their practice, they will be able to continue to bulk bill, particularly children under 16 and older Australians so this is a $3.5 billion investment from the government in general practice and in bulk billing.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: I'm just trying to drill down on that gap still, if you like, so you put the math on a level B the amount getting back $80. What's the average charge though, at the moment in these regional parts for a level B?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: General practices are small businesses, so what they charge is at the discretion of those small businesses, but what we've done as the government is tripled the bulk billing incentive...
TOM CONNELL, HOST: You must have also done the math on what they're charging because if it were somehow way more than that they're not going to change their incentive. So is there an average? Can you give me any sort of figure on what fees are at the moment?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, they do vary and they do vary on the community that you're in and the type of consult that you've had. But we have seen a significant increase where people are paying $50, $60 More for a typical consult and as I said, I'm reluctant to put a figure on it because it does vary on the state you're in and the remoteness of where you are...
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Can you give me a state, a city, anywhere where there's an average or something?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well as I said, general practices are small businesses and what they choose to charge their patients is their own independent decision. But we know that the bulk billing rates have dropped significantly and what we intend to do as the government is to turn that around and the best way that we can do that is by tripling the bulk billing incentive which will mean that in some communities, the most remote parts of Australia, the Government will now be investing more than $80 in a level B consult, which will mean that the person will be bulk billed and won't have to pay a co-payment.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: But to have the confidence that person in that situation would be bulk billed. You have to know how much it changes the equation for that GP surgery. I know no two ones are the same, but you must have some figures on average regional costs across the country or a state or something these must have been part of calculations.
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: And this has been, as I said, a general practice is a private business. What they choose to charge their patients is their own decision but we know that this is what the Royal Australian College of General Practice asked for, we know that this has been backed in by the Australian Medical Association and talking to the new president of the Rural Doctors Association, RT, in Tasmania over the weekend, they are very confident that practices that have reluctantly had to stop bulk billing will be able to return to bulk billing and practices weighing up whether they continue bulk billing will be able to do so.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: For some areas where demand is still really high, you know, it's a private business as you say there's stronger demand. They might keep just saying 'we don't need to bulk bill, we're getting enough people in anyway,' did you consider a minimum level even if it's a low one of bulk billing that every GP if you want to access Medicare payments 5% has to be bulk billing, if they want to bulk bill more, fine of course, but did you consider a measure like that? So everyone would be near a clinic that bulk bills?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, this is a demand driven system, and we have as I said, worked very closely with the Royal Australian College of General Practice with the Rural Doctors Association of Australia and with the AMA and this is what they've told us, that for them in order to be able to continue bulk billing or to return to bulk billing, that a tripling of the bulk billing incentive will make...
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Sure, well, you could do that as well as the measure I was talking about. The RACGP is never going to say 'please make us bulk bill 5%,' I'm just asking you if you, your government, or you as Minister have considered this sort of measure.
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we are working very closely with the sector including by standing up the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce and investing across the board in general practice from general practice grants so that they can improve their equipment and their IT through to the single employer model which is encouraging doctors into general practice. So, as the Government, we're looking across the board at all measures that we can do that will really help to strengthen Medicare and make it more robust and as I said, I'm confident from having spoken to the President of the Royal Australian College of General Practice, hearing from the incoming President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, that they're confident that their GPs will return to bulk billing or continue bulk billing.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: What if they don't? Is that the sort of measure again, just maybe it's a different way of asking the same question, is that measure on the table? Is that something you've considered? Would it not work for some reason I'm not thinking of?
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, what we've seen so far, and this is the biggest investment in bulk billing since Medicare was introduced over 40 years ago. This is $3.5 billion, a tripling of the bulk billing incentive. So we're confident doctors want to bulk bill. Doctors go into health care because they want to provide care for their community, particularly the most vulnerable people. So we've worked with the Royal Australian College of GPs, we've worked with the RDAA, we've worked with the AMA to provide the sort of measures that they said will lead to a boost in bulk billing. And I'm really confident from the conversations I've already had in Tasmania over the weekend or in the Illawarra this morning, that that's what we will see.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Again, I'm not sure any of them will actually say they should have a minimum bulk billing level but it sounds like you're going to wait to see if this works. Emma McBride. Thank you.
EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thank you.