The government has sought to extract itself from its end-of-year policy mess by shifting responsibility for its politically disastrous GP co-payment proposal to doctors.

In an announcement with Health Minister Peter Dutton, the Prime Minister this afternoon announced the co-payment would become “optional” for doctors to charge, reinforced with a $5 per consultation cut in Medicare funding for doctors for adults without concession cards. The government “wouldn’t mind” doctors charging a co-payment to make up for the shortfall, said Abbott, in effect shifting responsibility to doctors.

The policy would work in exactly the same way as the government’s original co-payment policy, which has failed to attract support in the Senate and proven deeply unpopular with voters, except that it wouldn’t apply to children or concession card holders, nor would it apply to pathology tests. However, the government will restructure consultation guidelines for Medicare payments to further reduce payments to doctors for short consultations.

The Prime Minister appeared to admit doctors had not been consulted about the “optional co-payment” when questioned. The Australian Medical Association has been a vociferous critic of the original proposal and is unlikely to be supportive of this change, which shifts full responsibility for charging patients onto doctors under the guise of being “optional”.

Savings will still be directed to a medical research fund, which Abbott vigorously defended, demanding to know who would not be in favour of medical research. The use of savings for the research fund has undermined government efforts to sell the co-payment as necessitated by the budget situation it inherited.

Peter Fray

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