DAVID KOCH, HOST: The Federal Government is considering a new plan to ease pressures on the health care system. But some say it's a long-term solution to an imminent crisis.
Health Minister Mark Butler joins us now from Canberra.
Minister, the gap fee for a standard consult with your doctor is now more than the Medicare rebate itself. Is that causing so many sick Aussies to clog up emergency departments can ring 000 to avoid it?
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: It's probably the most potent symbol, David, the first time in Medicare's 40-year history that the gap fee that people pay out of their own pocket is more than the Medicare rebate itself.
And it's a symptom of a broader challenge that patients and doctors talk to me about all through the last couple of years leading into the election, telling me that it's never been harder to see a doctor.
Wait times are blowing out dramatically, and it's never been more expensive for those Australians who are paying a gap fee, and more Australians are paying a gap fee.
As you say, that ends up at the hospital emergency department, like every other failing in our health and aged care system.
People end up at the ED that is already overcrowded - particularly because of the impact of COVID - and putting even more pressure on our hardworking doctors and nurses and health workers at the hospitals.
KOCH: Okay, so what are you going to do about it?
BUTLER: We put Medicare right at the centre of our health policy at the election campaign. We're rolling out 50 Urgent Care Clinics, particularly to take pressure off hospitals.
People are able to go to a bulk-billed clinic in their community for some of those minor emergencies that do otherwise end up at hospitals. We're saying those minor emergencies climb quite dramatically in terms of the hospital ED presentation.
We also put $750 million into a Strengthening Medicare Fund, and I’m meeting right now, every month between now and Christmas with doctors groups, nurses groups, patient groups and others to decide the best way to spend that, because we've got to turn this around.
A vibrant general practice system is the backbone of our health care.
KOCH: Are you going to increase the rebate to GPs though, so that there won't be a gap to pass on to patients?
BUTLER: Well, Kerryn Phelps in your intro pointed out that six years of Medicare rebate freeze that was instituted by Peter Dutton - 10 years ago when he was the Health Minister - has effectively pulled out $500 million from Medicare every year and you can't turn that around overnight.
It's really should be no surprise if you're freezing doctors’ wages for six years, that gap fees are going to climb.
That's why we insisted on putting more money into Medicare at the centre of our health policy.
KOCH: Are you going to make up the difference for rebates to get doctors back on level pegging?
BUTLER: I said the money we committed at the last election would not be decided just by me, that I wanted to sit down with doctors, and nurses and patient groups and work out the best way to invest that money into strengthening Medicare.
We're doing that now.
KOCH: So the answer is no?
BUTLER: The answer is that David, that I'm doing the right thing in talking to patients, doctors and nurses about the best way to spend the money we committed at the last election, the former government didn't commit any extra money to Medicare.
We put money on the table. But we also said we wanted to talk to and nurses and patients about the best way to spend that money.
KOCH: But surely, the easiest way and the quickest way to stop this gap is to immediately increase the rebate so doctors are fairly compensated and they don't need to pass on the gap.
BUTLER: We want to make sure that that extra investment that we put on the table is going to deliver better patient care. Because it's not just that there is a Medicare rebate freeze.
It's also that doctors and patients understand that the care is getting more complex. More people have chronic disease that requires longer consultations than maybe you used to see 30 or 40 years ago when Medicare was first introduced.
They don't just want more money, they want a cleverer Medicare system. They've made that very clear to me.
KOCH: Okay. If you can keep us up to date, because I think a lot of people want a quick fix to solve this quickly. It doesn't look as though it's coming.
So I appreciate your time today, but let's keep in touch. Thanks for joining us.