February 01, 2024

JENNY MARCHANT, PRESENTER: When you go and see your GP, do you get bulk billed, or are you paying the $70 or so for a consult, and getting a bit back from the Medicare rebate? We know the cost of seeing a GP can be a deterrent from getting the healthcare that you need, and that’s why the Federal Government late last year tripled the incentive for GPs to bulk bill children, pensioners, and concession card holders. 

DAN COX, PRESENTER: Today it’s saying that is helping more Australians see the doctor for free. The Federal Government says in October, 66.4 per cent of all GP visits were bulk billed in our region, 66.4. By December, with the incentive being increased, they say it was 69.8 per cent, so up 3.5 per cent of GP visits bulk billed across the Hunter.

Pat Conroy is the Member for Shortland, good morning. 


COX: This is good news for those who are now being bulk billed. We’re still below the state and federal average though in our region. Is what is happening now enough?

CONROY: Well we’re always looking at how we can improve our health system. Today is the 40th anniversary of the foundation of Medicare by the Hawke Labor Government, so it is good news. Lifting bulk billing rates in our region to just under 70 per cent means an extra 10,800 trips to the GP were bulk billed in November and December, and that saved people in our community almost half a million dollars. So that’s good news, and we should welcome that, but we are below the state average. Importantly, our increase in bulk billing was well above the state average, so while we started at a lower base, the impact of the bulk billing incentive tripling under the Labor Government has had a much greater impact in the Hunter than in say Sydney or broader New South Wales.

MARCHANT: So the New South Wales bulk billing rate is 82 per cent, we’re currently at 69.8 in the Hunter. What would be the ideal rate in your view and the Government’s view?

CONROY: Oh well I don’t have a policy setting in mind, but we need to get it up, there’s no way around it. We do need to get it up, and I and my colleagues have been very clear that we don’t want the Hunter bulk billing rate to be below the state average. We are looking for solutions on how we can solve that, and we made a number of commitments at the last election that we are delivering that will help. Restoring the hours at the much loved GP Access After Hours clinics is helping because they’re bulk billing clinics, opening Medicare Urgent Care Clinics up at Cessnock and down at Lake Haven is also making an impact, and tripling the bulk billing incentive which we are talking about today, a $6.1 billion investment which is the biggest investment in bulk billing in Medicare’s history are all helping, but we recognise there’s more to do.

COX: Pat Conroy, you mention the new bulk billing clinic at Cessnock, the Medicare Urgent Care Clinic. Could that be creating the appearance that clinics across the region are contributing to the increase? Is there a chance that the majority of the bulk billing, the increase we’ve seen is just happening at Cessnock?

CONROY: I don’t think so. Anecdotally when I speak to doctors, some of them do report that they are increasing their bulk billing rates for pensioners, concession card holders, and for children under 16. So I’ve certainly heard from doctors who aren’t linked to the Cessnock Medicare Urgent Care Clinic, so I think it’s broader than that. That clinic is really helping, as is the one at Lake Haven on the northern Central Coast, but the scale of the movement is much broader than those Medicare Urgent Care Clinics.

MARCHANT: Is there help on the way for people who aren’t being bulk billed right now, who aren’t concession card holders or pensioners and because of the cost of living and other factors might be having trouble finding the money for a doctor in the budget?

CONROY: Well we’re doing multiple things. Obviously helping with the cost of living helps pay for everything. So the tax cuts that Prime Minister Albanese announced last week where every single Australian taxpayer will get a tax cut will help people to afford to go to the doctor. Our energy bill relief is helping people who are eligible for that.

But we are also tackling it from the Medicare side, so getting more doctors into our region is a key impediment to getting doctors to bulk bill. And so I fought hard with my colleagues and Mark Butler responded to make our area what’s called a Distribution Priority Area after the last election. This allows doctors who are overseas trained or doctors who are on scholarships in our university system to come up and work in our area. The last Government for some bizarre reason had banned that, had stopped that. So getting more doctors to our area will increase the supply and make it easier for people to see a doctor, and that will make it easier for people to get bulk billed. But we don’t pretend the system doesn’t need improvement from where it is now. We are working on that, but we are just saying we have made some early achievements.

MARCHANT: Are there new doctors coming into the region under that program you mentioned? Is that already happening?

CONROY: Absolutely, I’ve talked to a couple of general practice practice managers, and they say it is easier to recruit doctors now that they can attract internationally trained doctors and doctors on scholarships, because those are the doctors that have to work in certain areas for a number of years before they can hang out their own shingle. So us being eligible has made a big impact and that’s flowing through the system because what we are also seeing is that there’s a large group of doctors that are retiring, people who are reaching retirement age, and we need to find replacements for them so that we get new doctors into the system who can then bulk bill. So we are making progress. We invented Medicare. It’s the 40th anniversary today of Medicare. We want to protect and enhance it and that’s what Labor Governments do.

COX: Pat Conroy is the Member for Shortland on ABC Newcastle Breakfast, it’s 16 to eight. Louise is in Awabakal Country saying the gap can vary in Newcastle even if you can find a GP that bulk bills. Louise says she recently rang around and it was almost impossible to find a GP and most services’ books are closed. She says it’s very frustrating, and another problem is the continuity of care which you don’t get if you’re chopping and changing doctors all the time. You understand that frustration when it comes to just needing a doctor right there and then but there is no continuity of care, Pat Conroy?

CONROY: Absolutely, and that’s why the Medicare Urgent Care Clinics are great at helping with urgent needs and the GP Access After Hours service if you’ve got a child as I do who broke their wrist and you know that a GP and an x-ray will fix it and you don’t need to clog up the emergency department system. These visits are really good at relieving pressure off emergency departments, but that’s not the same as having a regular GP that knows your history and can help you, and that’s why getting more doctors into the region is such an important initiative that we’re doing.

Look we understand and us talking about improving bulk billing rates isn’t pretending that there aren’t people who can’t get bulk bulling doctors and that there aren’t people who can’t find a doctor. We’re absolutely committed to solving those issues, but we do need to recognise where we make progress because that impacts on people’s lives. It makes people’s lives better, they get healthier outcomes, and more cost of living relief.

MARCHANT: Pat Conroy, you’re proud of the, was it, 40 years of Medicare today. Bob at Maryland thinks we should celebrate by adding dental into Medicare. Will that day ever come?

CONROY: I don’t know to be honest. It would be incredibly expensive to do that. Dental health is vital and that’s why Labor Governments have provided strong incentives for regular check ups particularly for kids, because early dental health can flow through to the rest of your life. But I think we really need to concentrate on fixing the system so that people can see a doctor when they need to see a doctor, they can have continuity of healthcare, and can get bulk billed where it makes sense. So I am really focused on improving the current Medicare system rather than expanding it, but I acknowledge that people are very fervent about their dental health as they should be.

COX: Good to talk to you this morning, thanks for taking our questions.

CONROY: Thank you, have a lovely morning.