Albanese says health reform top priority but doctors left unimpressed

The Albanese government will consider paying for longer GP consults, reforming funding models and expanding the scope of nurses, pharmacists and allied health workers in what would be the biggest overhaul of Medicare in 40 years.

But Australians will have to wait until July at the earliest before any measures are implemented, despite doctors’ pleas for urgent action to fix a healthcare system grappling with overwhelmed emergency departments, worsening access to care for the most vulnerable, a steep decline in GP bulk-billing rates and rising out-of-pocket medical costs.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and premiers and chief ministers at a press conference after national cabinet on Friday.Credit:James Brickwood

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said health reform was policymakers’ top priority this year as he presented the government’s Strengthening Medicare taskforce report to state and territory leaders at a national cabinet meeting in Canberra on Friday.

But the Australian Medical Association said the report – which was developed in consultation with the health sector over six months – offered no immediate solutions, which was what the sector needed after minimal Medicare rebate increases over the last decade.

“Australians can see the crisis the health systems are in. We were surprised to see nothing more come out of it. We had the most powerful political leaders in the country all in one room doesn’t seem they could agree on anything,” AMA president Steve Robson said.

“By the time all of the reforms that are in the Strengthening Medicare taskforce come to fruition, we’re all going to be standing around a rotting carcass of what used to be Medicare. We need to resuscitate things now if we’re going to have scope to deal with the other things in the taskforce report.”

Health Minister Mark Butler said the government would move on some of its simpler suggestions – such as allowing GPs to bill it for longer sessions in more complex cases – in the May budget, and was already acting on its election promise to introduce urgent care clinics around the country, the first of which will launch in Perth at the end of June.

However, the long-term recommendations would take time.

The report recommends blended funding models to manage patients with chronic disease alongside the existing fee-for-service model, and introducing voluntary patient registration, whereby a practice gets annual payments or other benefits when patients enrol with it for continued care.

It also calls for incentives to ensure multidisciplinary teams of GPs, nurses, midwives and allied health professionals all work to their full scope of practice.

“There are five specific recommendations here and they will now go into a budget process to determine how we spend that $750 million and that will become clear on budget night,” Butler said.

But he pleaded for patience as the government embarked on staged reform to ensure Medicare met the needs of the 21st century.

“I want to be really frank with Australians and with people working in the health sector, I know that this is not going to fix things in and of itself. I know this is not a single budget challenge. I know there will be more to do,” Butler said.

“But this report sets [out] a very clear challenge to government about how we start to turn things around in general practice and primary care more broadly.

“As national cabinet said, though, this is not a question of just chucking money at the existing system. The existing system needs to change to reflect the care needs of the Australian population in the 2020s.”

Earlier in the day, Albanese said state and territory leaders had agreed health reform would be their top priority for the next 12 months during a national cabinet discussion that also addressed the Indigenous Voice to parliament, energy and national security.

State premiers, who had been campaigning for an increase to Medicare rebates for GPs, dialled back their rhetoric as they arrived in Canberra, emphasising that system reform was more important than dollar figures.

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