24 August 2009
Appeared in BioNews 522Australia’s Labor government is heading for a showdown with other members of the federal coalition, the Opposition, the Greens and some independent senators over proposals to cap reimbursements under the Medicare scheme. The cap will cover services such as obstetrics and the provision of IVF, where the Government says doctors are charging excessive fees. However, the Coalition, which maintains a Senate majority, is threatening to delay the Bill on the grounds that it will deny access to treatment to those on lower incomes and that the fiscal details have not been thought through.
Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon says the Health Insurance Amendment (Extended Medicare Safety Net) Bill 2009 will save millions of dollars over the next few years which can be then used to fund a much awaited electronic health scheme. She insists it will not have a negative impact on patients and will provide an incentive to doctors to lower their prices for fertility treatment. 'It is in the hands of those specialists who can still make very, very good incomes to make a decision whether they want patients to pay for this, or whether they are prepared to moderate their fees,' she said. 'The changes to the extended Medicare safety net measure have been designed to cap doctors' fees where there is clear evidence they are excessive.'
Peter Dutton, health spokesman for the Opposition, said the Government must produce further details of the proposal before the measure is voted upon. 'If the government can stand by its guarantee that patients won't be worse off under these changes, then release the detail and we can have a proper chat about it,' he said. The Opposition has been attacked by Labor for reneging on a promise to back the proposals. 'The opposition has today indicated they are backing away from this commitment and in doing so they have displayed complete disregard for fiscal responsibility,' said Roxon.
The IVF Medical Directors group and the Australian Medical Association have also criticised the proposal for a lack of detail, while the latter said the Government has failed to account for rising costs in the sector which will prevent doctors from reducing their fees. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said the Government will create a situation whereby people on lower incomes will not be able to afford fertility treatment. 'We'll have a situation where there's IVF for the rich and infertility for everyone else,' he said. 'That's why it's very important, particularly in relation to the IVF changes, that they not go through,' he added.
The Bill is currently being debated in the Senate.