Private health insurers would be banned from obtaining preferential GP treatment for their members under a bill introduced by the Greens on Thursday.
Currently, health insurers are prohibited from paying for GP services but Health Minister Peter Dutton has signalled he is open to change.
In November, the nation’s largest insurer, Medibank Private began a trial with medical centre manager Independent Practitioner Network in which six of its Brisbane centres provide Medibank members with a range of enhanced GP services – including a guaranteed appointment within 24 hours and after-hours home visits – for no out-of-pocket costs.
Medibank is not paying IPN for the services directly but contributing to the “administrative and management costs” of the trial.
Medibank has said the arrangement complied with the Health Insurance Act and Mr Dutton has said he saw “no evidence that they are acting contrary to the legislation.”
But Greens health spokesman Richard di Natale said while the arrangement appeared “to be within the letter of the law,” it ran “clearly against the spirit of the Private Health Insurance Act”.
Senator di Natale said the “loophole” in the law should be closed because allowing private insurers to cover GP services would cause doctors’ fees and insurance premiums to skyrocket.
“This might be a good tactic for increasing market share and driving up the Medibank sale price but it will leave ordinary people worse off,” Senator di Natale said.
“Medicare has kept the cost of seeing a doctor down for 30 years because a single universal insurer has the power to set the price of services. If competing private health insurers start covering primary care it will take the lid off the price of a doctor’s visit and everyone will end up paying more,” Senator Di Natale said.
“While health insurers providing GP cover has superficial appeal, this change will mark the end of Medicare as we know it. Private health insurance would become a necessity to see a GP yet insurance premiums will go through the roof.”
His bill would specifically prohibit insurers from entering into arrangements for preferential access to GP services.
In a speech to a private health conference on Monday, Mr Dutton said a greater role for private insurers in primary care would strengthen rather than undermine Medicare. But he said the government would not support changes that would lead to higher premiums.
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