A website designed to inform patients about the costs of specialist services will help combat ‘bill shock’.
To be launched by the Federal Government, the website is the result of a report by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Out-of-Pocket Costs.
Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) CEO, Michael Roff, said he welcomed the news.
“APHA has long campaigned for transparency for patients in their private health insurance policies and their medical bills,” he said.
“We think this new website will be part of the solution to addressing the concerns patients have raised about bill shock. However, we are concerned at the long lead time for consultation and development which means the website probably won’t be available for two years.
“Given the Ministerial Committee on out of pocket costs took almost a year to look at the issues and complete its report, it should not take another two years to implement the recommendations.”
“There is still some effort to be put into patient education around understanding that the most expensive surgeon is not necessarily the best one and encouraging pathways for patients to get second opinions.
“It is important that all medical billing be transparent, including any assistant surgeon or anaesthetist fees,” Mr Roff said.
Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, said the vast majority of doctors were “doing the right thing”.
“However, the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Out-of-Pocket-Costs report, has found a minority of medical specialists charge very large or unexpected out of pocket costs,” he said.
“This practice can cause enormous distress and financial hardship for patients and their families. It also undermines Australia’s private health insurance system.
“Our Government will fund the development of a national searchable website to provide the public with greater access to information about the costs of specialist services.”
Specialists will be expected to show their fees, as agreed with the medical profession, on the website to enable patients and General Practitioners to consider costs when determining their choice of specialists.
The initial focus of the website will be on fees for gynaecology, obstetrics and cancer services.
Leanne Wells, CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, which was also part of the advisory committee, said the site was a great first step.
“We have previously called for an authoritative website disclosing individual specialist fees for some years and it is good to see the committee has also recommended this measure,” she said.
“The challenge now will be to ensure that once it is introduced after consultation with consumers and doctors, that all specialists use it.
“We need ways to ensure participation and we expect doctors to co-operate and their professional associations and colleges to lead in the public interest.
“Consumers also need to see individual performance statistics of specialists. As the committee report says, higher fees do not necessarily mean higher quality care.”
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has been more cautious in its praise, saying the site should also list what patients can expect back from Medicare and their private health insurance fund.
“The AMA has contributed to the Minister’s advisory committee and will continue to work with the Government to ensure that Australians get what they want and need – transparency of their out of pocket costs before they have treatment,” AMA president, Dr Tony Bartone, said.
“Informed financial consent requires total transparency. But that transparency must extend to both the size of the MBS (Medicare Benefits Schedule) rebate and the private health insurance contribution to the cost of treatment.
“(And) unlike the growing range of privately-funded fees websites that now exist, a Government-developed website must be impartial and backed by the Commonwealth’s extensive data set.”
Mr Hunt added the Government would also fund an education initiative to increase the understanding of medical out-of-pocket-costs among consumers, their families and GP’s.
“The education initiative will also focus on specialists, including outlining the impact of egregious charging and the current material differences in charging practices,” he said.
“These important measures will support patients and their families to make more informed decisions about their health care.”
Private Healthcare Australia Chief Executive, Dr Rachel David, said the website was a welcome step and further action should be taken against medical specialists who charged “egregious fees” or who failed to inform consumers of likely costs.
The Ministerial Advisory Committee on Out-of-Pocket-Costs was chaired by the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, and made up of representatives from the AMA, medical colleges, insurers, hospitals and consumers.