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HomeminewsOptometry Australia: Final Call for Support on Medicare

Optometry Australia: Final Call for Support on Medicare

Optometrists have until 25 September to maximise public support for a petition demanding that the Federal Government invests more into Medicare.

Optometry Australia’s ‘Stop the cuts to Medicare for Optometry’ petition calls on the Government to reverse the five per cent cut to the Optometric Medicare Benefits Schedule (OMBS) and to reinstate annual indexation of the OMBS.

Optometrists have been urged to champion the petition by discussing the issues with their patients and asking them to pledge their support, because CEO Genevieve Quilty says, “The more signatures we can collect, the louder our voice is to Parliament”.

MEDICARE CHANGES EXPLAINED

Last year’s Federal Budget brought significant changes to how optometry consultations are reimbursed under Medicare, coming into effect on 1 January 2015. After many years of advocacy by Optometry Australia, the Australian Government removed the cap on fees that optometrists can charge under Medicare. This cap, imposed in 1975, was extremely restrictive as the value of the Medicare rebate was eroded through inadequate indexation by successive governments.

In addition to the fee cap removal, the Government also decided to reduce its overall investment in Medicare by cutting the patient rebate by five per cent, changing the allowable frequency for a comprehensive eye examination for patients less than 65 years of age and announcing an extension to the freeze on indexation of the OMBS. The Medicare rebate cut applies to all patients, with no exemptions for those who commonly experience disadvantage such as low-income earners.

Ms. Quilty said the impact of the five per cent cut and extended freeze on indexation are likely to be felt hardest by optometrists practising in disadvantaged areas and their patients.

“We are very concerned these cuts will threaten the viability of many optometrists practising in lower socio-economic areas of Australia, including outreach services, where patients are less likely to afford increased out-of-pocket costs,” said Ms. Quilty. Indexation of the OMBS has been frozen since November 2012 and is not due to be indexed again until July 2018.

“Our analysis shows the combined effect of the indexation freeze and rebate cut means the average patient rebate for an optometry consultation in real terms will be $10 less in 2018 than it was in 2014,” said Ms. Quilty.

Although business tax cuts from the most recent Federal Budget will provide some short-term relief, as practice operational costs continue to rise, many practices in disadvantaged areas will be forced to either absorb the cut to their Medicare revenue or charge patients more for consultations, which is likely to prevent their more vulnerable patients from accessing the eye care they need.

PUBLIC SUPPORT IS STRONG

Behavioural optometrist Simon Grbevski, who runs an optometric practice in Rockdale, about 12 kilometres south of Sydney’s central business district, had collected three pages of signatures after just two weeks.

“All our patients have been extremely supportive of the petition. They are shocked to realise the rebate under Medicare has effectively gone back several years and that they may now have to pay more out of their own pocket for their eye care,” Mr. Grbevski said.

The petition builds on Optometry Australia’s ‘Eye Care for All’ campaign, which was launched in March 2015, and advocates for Medicare to support sustainable optometry services and equitable patient access. The campaign has already resulted in many optometrists writing letters to their local MPs about the impact the cuts to Medicare are beginning to have on service provision, quality of care and patient access.

Ms. Quilty said the petition is an effective way for the optometry sector to provide a united voice to Government.

“Grass roots advocacy from the practice level up is what’s required to make a real difference. The response from optometrists and patients to date has been extremely positive but we need the momentum to continue,” Ms Quilty said.

CUTS ALREADY IMPACTING PRACTICE

Tony De Santis runs an independent optometric practice in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and says the Medicare cuts are already having an impact on his business.

“From young families to aged pensioners, many of our patients rely on bulk-billing. It’s meant we’ve had to find ways to absorb the drop in revenue. We really do need an increase in Medicare rebates.”

At the end of each consultation, Mr. De Santis briefly discusses the petition with his patients and asks if they will consider signing it.

“Once you explain that the situation has been like this for three years because of the indexation freeze and will be like this for another three years, patients can see how unfair it is and are very surprised that we can still provide such comprehensive care. They are very happy to sign it,” said Mr. De Santis.

It is not uncommon for Mr. De Santis to spend up to 40 minutes providing a comprehensive consultation, particularly for a patient with complex needs, but fears this level of care is not sustainable under current Medicare arrangements.

“If we keep going the way we’re going (receiving less from Medicare), as much as I don’t want it to, there is a possibility that the quality of eye care may be reduced. Consultations will inevitably get shorter, which may increase the risk of missing things,” Mr. De Santis said.

Optometry Australia plans to have a Member of Parliament table the petition on the organisation’s behalf in the House of Representatives during the October parliamentary sitting period.

To make sure every signature counts, signed petitions must be returned to Optometry Australia by Friday, 25 September 2015. For more information visit the petition page on the Optometry Australia website.

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

To get involved, visit the Optometry Australia website and:
• Print a copy of the petition.
• Print a copy of the practice poster, which promotes the petition to patients and explains why it is important.
• Display the petition and poster prominently in your practice.
• Discuss the petition with your patients and also encourage practice staff to do so. Optometry Australia has produced a suggested script to help practice staff begin an effective conversation with patients.