Cost forces patient to put off doctor?s visit
By ALEX EASTON
HELEN Hill should have seen a doctor weeks ago, but cannot afford it. Mrs Hill is no hard luck case. The mother of three works part-time and her husband works full-time as a teacher; but said she had put off seeking medical help for asthma because she could not find a doctor who bulk bills. "Asthma's not something you muck around with," she said. But with a trip to the doctor resulting in an unbudgeted initial bill of more that $100 ? money that came out of things such as the household food budget ? the solution was often not to go at all. Bulk billing has emerged as one of the major election issues for Northern Rivers residents. But Northern Rivers Division of General Practice chairman Tony Lembke warned things would get little easier for local people searching for bulk billing doctors, despite big promises from both sides of politics in the lead-up to the October 9 Federal election. Labor and the Coalition have each promised to pump billions into bulk billing. Labor Leader Mark Latham has vowed, if elected, to increase payments for doctors who bulk bill as part of a plan to have 80 per cent of GPs offering the service. Prime Minister John Howard offered the same increase, but said it would be also available as a rebate to people who used doctors that did not bulk bill. There are bulk billing doctors in the region (Mrs Hill, after a 13-year search, found one in Wollongbar soon after speaking to The Northern Star), but they are far short of Mr Latham's 80 per cent target. The most recent figures, December 2003, for the Page electorate show only 47 per cent of doctor's bulk billing. Richmond was higher at 63 per cent, but both were below the national average of about 68 per cent. "Both...policies will increase bulk billing rates, but I don't believe we will ever achieve 80 per cent in rural areas," Dr Lembke said. "(But) bulk billing is really not the be-all and end-all. "Bulk billing doesn't reflect the quality of a rural practice."