Australia’s medical eye specialists have taken the Federal Government to task following its decision to decrease by half the Medicare refund for cataract surgery. They are concerned that patients may be forced to put off surgery to restore their sight, resulting in falls, possible fractures, social isolation and depression.
A statement issued by two professional bodies says: “As part of cost containment, the Federal Government announced in the 2009 Federal Budget that it will reduce the Medicare reimbursement to patients for cataract surgery as of November 2009 from AUD$623.70 to AUD$311.85 or by approximately 50 per cent.
“The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) and the Australian Society of Ophthalmologists (ASO) call on the Government, the Health Minister and the Department of Health and Ageing to reverse the intention to reduce the Medicare rebate for cataract surgery. RANZCO and ASO wish to continue to work co-operatively with the Government to achieve the best possible outcome for the Australian public our patients.”
Dr. Iain Dunlop, President of RANZCO, says he has had several conversations with Federal health Minister Nicola Roxon, to try to convince her to reverse the decision, but has so far been unsuccessful. He warns that by the year 2020, the number of people suffering cataracts will double and won’t have 20-20 vision.
“It’s incredible because the saving to the Government is a mere AUD$98 million over three years and the costs will be far more,” says Dr. Dunlop.
According to Dr. Dunlop, Ms. Roxon has taken the view of Treasury that cuts have to be found and, because of anecdotal information, believes cataract surgery is done in ten minutes and is therefore overvalued.
“It is now done in about 30 minutes and with the improvement in technology, which has become more expensive, the procedure is much more efficient than it was. And do you know that the fee for the procedure has not changed in 20 years.
“We are not talking here about a cosmetic procedure. As the population ages, potentially every person in Australia will eventually develop cataracts. Untreated cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world.At least 120,000 Australian’s each year now have surgery which involves the removal of the cataract and the implant of a sight-restoring lens. The result is dramatic. In more than 98 per cent of cases there is an almost immediate return to normal vision. Simply put, patients can see again. The benefits to them are enormous,” says Dr. Dunlop.
“But, if implemented, the Budget decision will cut the Medicare benefit in half, from about AUD$623 to AUD$312, making this vital surgery unaffordable for some. Pensioners and those without private health insurance will be hardest hit.
“The already stretched public health system will be further congested. Cataract procedures may not be available in rural and remote areas and indigenous communities. There will be a greater cost to the community as a result of falls and fractures, and an increased demand on the public health sector and for support services.”
Dr. Dunlop says there is a misconception that because cataract surgery is so commonplace it is, therefore, simple to perform.
“Technological advancements have allowed the development of an operation that is far safer yet, in fact, much more difficult to perform. Today, cataract surgery is one of the most effective medical procedures, in effect a modern miracle. It is vital that this sightrestoring surgery remains within the financial reach of the many thousand Australians who will need it.”
Dr. Dunlop says medical specialists together with pensioner and superannuants groups will continue to campaign for the Medicare funding to be re-instated, calling the cuts “incredibly short-sighted”.
“This may just be the thin end of the wedge. Cancer screening and other common and necessary procedures could be next in the firing line,” he warns.