Tony Abbott’s hopes for a fresh start new year have been dashed, with the Prime Minister capitulating on his plan to slash the Medicare rebate for doctors’ visits just 24 hours after defending the “price signal” as an “economic reform” that would improve patient care.
Mr Abbott, a former health minister, spent Wednesday taking soundings, including from colleagues, and the decision to abandon the $20 cut for short appointments was made late that evening, during a phone call between the Prime Minister and his new Health Minister Sussan Ley.
The issue was set to overshadow the Queensland state election, with doctors threatening to plaster waiting room walls with posters saying “YOUANDYOUR GP HAVE BEEN TARGETED”.
A government source said on Monday, when the cuts were due to begin, “every waiting room would have turned into a ballot box”. Premier CampbellNewman revealed he had told the federal government he did not support the cuts. “We have expressed concerns about this driving people to emergency departments so we don’t support it,” Mr Newman said.
The leadership team signed off on the decision on Thursday morning but at the same time cabinet minister Bruce Billson was insisting the change remained “on the table” and would be implemented.
Hours later, Ms Ley cut short her holiday and fronted the media inMelbourneto place her “stamp” on the portfolio by scrapping the measure, which was introduced quietly by regulation two days before Christmas by her predecessor Peter Dutton.
“I’ve heard, I’ve listened and I’m deciding to take this action now. It’s off the table and I stand ready to engage, to consult, and to talk to the sector,” she said.
Ms Ley said she remained committed to introducing price signals into the Medicare system, including the $5 cut to the Medicare rebate as part of the revised GP co-payment due to begin July 1.
Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler said the government’s backdown was a “welcome surprise” and promised to “work with the minister to come up with something that’s better for GPs and patients”.
“I’m really glad for Sussan Ley that’s she’s not lumped with this policy,” he said.
But he refused to outline any concessions the AMA would be willing to make, saying “it’s not our job to find savings”.
Professor Owler said the government should be boosting, not cutting, funding to GPs because primary care was more sustainable long-term in keeping patients out of hospitals.
“Primary care is the answer to sustainability, not the problem,” he said. “Sustaining the system is about investing in primary care, so instead of cutting maybe we should be boosting funding,” he said.
The AMA supports a co-payment for wealthier patients but is opposed to the revised co-payment because it will effectively mean a $5 cut to their rebates.
The campaign against the $20 cut to the rebates paid to GPs for appointments between six and 10 minutes long reached a head on Thursday, when the AMA released a scathing letter it had written to Mr Abbott the week before.
Labor, the Greens, Palmer United and senators Ricky Muir, Nick Xenophon and Jacqui Lambie had already declared they would move to disallow the change when Parliament resumes next month.
The measure would have raised $1.3 billion over four years and was part of the revamped GP co-payment the government was forced to revise because it faced defeat in the Senate. A spokesman for Treasurer Joe Hockey said Labor had a duty to contribute to the job of repairing the budget.
“Labor created the budget mess and now must help us to fix the budget,” the spokesman said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the government’s health policy was in “shambles”.
“Only yesterday Tony Abbott was insisting the new GP tax by stealth would not be abandoned,” Mr Shorten.
“The Abbott government is only acting because it has been forced to by Labor’s refusal to bend in our defence of Medicare,” he said.
Palmer United’s leader in the Senate Glenn Lazarus also claimed credit for the government’s backdown.
“Palmer United has forced the Abbott government to back down on its changes to Medicare. PUP has fixed it up,” Senator Lazarus said.
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