04 April 2022

RACGP backs committee calls for general practice funding boost

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has warmly welcomed the recommendation of an interim report proposing a substantial boost in funding for general practice care.

It comes following the release of the Community Affairs References Committee’s interim report into the provision of general practitioner and related primary health services to outer metropolitan, rural, and regional Australians. 

The college’s submission to the inquiry stressed that a failure to invest adequately in general practice patient services will compromise access to high-quality general practice care for many communities across the nation. This comes at a time when GPs are helping people affected by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, including those who have delayed and avoided screenings and GP consultations as well as those with mental health concerns.

RACGP President Professor Karen Price said that the interim report vindicated what GPs had been saying for many years.

“It is music to my ears that the committee is recommending the federal Government investigates substantially increasing Medicare rebates for all levels of general practice consultations, as well as other general practice funding options,” she said.

“Medicare rebates for patients simply haven’t kept pace with inflation and the cost of providing high-quality general practice care. In addition, the current Medicare rebate structure devalues longer consultations because patient rebates decrease significantly the longer a person spends with their GP.

“As I have said again and again - good care requires time. That includes time to listen, time to assess and time to collaborate with other healthcare providers. Substantially increasing Medicare rebates at all levels will make an enormous difference for patient care in communities right across Australia.”

The RACGP President said that investing in general practice would benefit the entire health system.

“For too long, general practice care has been taken for granted. By increasing patient rebates and boosting general practice funding, we can give primary care a much needed shot in the arm and relieve pressure on the nation’s health system,” she said.

“If more support is given to general practice we can help more patients in need and ease the burden on a health system already under immense pressure, including our hospitals. When rebates don’t keep pace with inflation, let alone the cost of providing high-quality care, practice viability suffers – particularly in areas of lower socio-economic status, and rural and remote areas. If practices are forced to close their doors, this in turn can lead to people ending up in a hospital bed for a condition that should have been taken care of by their usual GP.

“Investing in general practice just makes economic sense. Modelling by PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting of our Vision for general practice and a sustainable healthcare system revealed estimated benefits of a billion dollars, at a minimum, in the first year alone and at least $5.6 billion over the following five years. This would rise to at least $6.9 billion in the five years from 2026 to 2030 and $8.7 billion in the five years from 2031 to 2035.

“So, it’s not just about helping out practices in need, investing in general practice is the perfect solution when you consider what it means for every part of a health system managing an ageing population and the ongoing fallout from the pandemic.”

Clinical Professor Price said that greater investment in general practice was also vital in securing the future of the GP workforce, particularly in areas where finding a GP can prove difficult if not impossible.

“We are a critical juncture with only 15% of final-year medical students in 2019 listing general practice as their first-preference speciality for the future – the lowest figure since all the way back in 2012,” she said.

“Our General Practice: Health of the Nation report found that 26% of respondents ranked Medicare rebates as their highest priority and almost half indicated that they were less likely to recommend general practice as a career to their junior colleagues compared to a decade ago. This was due to concerns around their remuneration, recognition, and Medicare billing requirements.

“So, if we are serious about boosting the general practice workforce we must invest in general practice and address long-term funding arrangements.

“The vital task of attracting more junior doctors to take on the general practice career path would be made that much easier. Unless we do so, we are at serious risk of running out of GPs at a time when we are needed by our communities more than ever before.

“As I said on Budget night, not enough has been done to attract medical students to the specialty of general practice. The sustainability of the most cost-efficient and effective part of the health system is in jeopardy and a failure to properly invest in general practice puts every other part of the health system at risk.”

Professor Price urged whoever formed government following the federal election to act decisively and put the committee’s recommendation into practice. 

“This is just an interim report and there is a lot of work to be done to make this recommendation a reality; however, I believe today is a small but important step forward for general practice,” she said.

“General practices across Australia have done their best when faced with Medicare freezes, inadequate rebates that don’t take account of what is required to care for patients with complex needs, as well as many other challenges such as absorbing the cost of participating in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. For many, the future viability of their practices are in serious danger and this is terrible news for communities where access to general practice care is already limited.

“The RACGP will push forward and continue the fight to secure the future of general practice so that all patients, no matter their postcode, can access world-class primary care. Everyone deserves strong access to general practice care and this issue should be a priority for all parties and candidates in the lead up to the upcoming federal election.”

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