Health Minister Peter Dutton has sent the strongest signal yet that the federal government is preparing to shake up its Medicare Locals network, either by axing the services or restructuring the system.
Speaking in Canberra on Wednesday, Mr Dutton said the federal government had reviewed the community-based health organisations and was preparing to make an announcement on their future.
There has been speculation the government plans to cease funding the 61 existing Medicare Locals and instead fund a smaller number of organisations to co-ordinate services.
Medicare Locals, which were established under the Rudd government as part of a $1.8 billion plan to co-ordinate community health services, help patients find primary care providers such as after-hours GP clinics and mental health support.
Mr Dutton was critical of the services, which he said were part of a large health bureaucracy that was sucking funding from frontline medical services.
“I don’t want Labor’s spin doctors, I want real doctors and that’s what we’re determined to do,” he said.
“We have had a review of Medicare Locals in terms of what the Medicare Locals will do – these are the ones that don’t see patients – where you can’t get your forms processed.
“We are going to make an announcement in due course on Medicare Locals.”
Mr Dutton said the government supported the divisions of general practice that were the precursor to the Medicare Locals network.
While he did not confirm the government planned to axe the network, he hinted strongly that at least some of the services were for the chopping block.
“We think there are some good Medicare Locals doing some good work but I want to make sure money is not being spent on bureaucracies,” Mr Dutton said.
“I want to make sure it’s being spent on frontline services.
“I want to make sure that people can get good and easy access to see their doctor to get into an emergency department.”
The review of Medicare Locals, which was led by former chief medical officer John Horvath, was handed to Mr Dutton last month.
Arn Sprogis, the chairman of the Australian Medicare Local Alliance, said if the government stopped funding Medicare Locals, patients would get worse care.
Dr Sprogis said the budget would also suffer because more people would be admitted to hospital for conditions that might not have required hospital treatment if better care was provided earlier.
"If we went to a smaller number of Medicare Locals which were much bigger, in other words, not local at all, we’d be going backwards in time,’’ he said.
Australian Medical Association vice president Geoffrey Dobb said the association would not oppose changes to the name or the organisational structure of Medicare Locals, but said it was important that organisations existed to co-ordinate services, such as out of hours care.
“We want to see the functions and services continue," he said. "If that can be done within a model that is more efficient, that increased efficiency is something that we would support, as long as it doesn’t mean a reduction in patient services.”