GPs will be given a greater financial incentive to bulk-bill vulnerable patients under changes to Medicare.
The new financial rewards, which kick in from Wednesday, triples the incentives for the bulk billing of pensioners, concession card holders and children.
The move was previously announced in the federal budget as a response to falling bulk-billing rates.
Under the changes, GPs will be given a $20.65 bonus if they are in cities and an almost $40 bonus for regional areas.
Health Minister Mark Butler said the increases had been called for by doctors.
“It’s a huge boost in confidence and funding to a sector that I think is probably in its most parlous state it’s been in the 40-year history of Medicare,” he told ABC Radio.
“(Clinics) have said they’ll be returning to bulk billing or many of them who are considering a change would stick with bulk billing for those more than 11 million Australians (who bulk bill).”
The new incentives are expected to cost $3.5 billion across the next five years.
The health minister said the bulk-billing incentive was part of $6 billion in new measures for the sector, which included a boost to the Medicare rebate.
“We’re doing a range of things to boost the viability of general practice to make it easier for patients to see a doctor particularly free of charge,” Mr Butler said.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Nicole Higgins said the increase in bulk-billing incentives was a welcome move.
“It is targeted relief that will help GPs to bulk bill more patients who need it – children, pensioners and healthcare card holders,” Dr Higgins said.
“Bulk billing has declined significantly in recent years because Medicare rebates have been below inflation for years, and are nowhere near the cost of care.
“GPs have been subsidising the full cost of care every time they bulk bill their patients.”
Australian Medical Association president Steve Robson said the incentives would provide significant cost of living relief.
“This significant investment … is the starting point for improving the sustainability of general practice in Australia,” Professor Robson said.
“But we know more work can be done. We will continue working with the government on developing new programs and initiatives that strengthen primary care and ensure GP-led care is affordable and accessible for all patients.”
(Australian Associated Press)