The proportion of GP visits being bulk-billed has hit a record high, with 82.4 per cent of GP services in the first three months of the year provided at no cost to the patient.
Health Minister Tanya Plibersek contrasted the figures with those when Tony Abbott was health minister, when bulk-billing rates dipped as low as 67 per cent.
''These historic high rates of bulk billing are a result of concerted effort on the part of this government,'' she said. ''We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars into incentives to encourage doctors, pathologists, radiologists and other health professionals to bulk bill.''
But Australian General Practice Network co-chairman Nicholas Demediuk said the growth of large corporate-style medical practices, which bulk bill but spend less time with each patient, had contributed to the trend. ''It's not really great medicine,'' he said. ''We call it five-minute medicine and we don't think it's the best way.''
The Department of Human Services last month launched an investigation into possible overservicing or incorrect claiming by health practitioners working in the same practice. The inquiry will initially focus on practices where four or more doctors have provided about 80 services on 20 or more days over 12 months.
Dr Demediuk said other factors included an increase in the number of medical graduates, which was driving competition for patients, while higher rebates for some services, such as care plans, had made it easier for doctors to bulk bill.
He said while the upside of higher bulk billing was better access to care, the downside was there was no price signal to deter people from using services excessively.
Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton said more doctors were bulk billing because they cared about their patients, many of whom were ''doing it tough''. ''The GPs are doing their bit to maintain access for their patients,'' he said.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Liz Marles said the figures were not a good measure of the affordability of healthcare, because they showed the number of services bulk billed, rather than the number of people who were accessing bulk billing.
''Affordability of healthcare in Australia is poor,'' Dr Marles said.
She cited a recent report by the Consumer Health Forum that found Australia had the fifth highest out-of-pocket healthcare costs in the world, with the average Australian paying $1075 per year in out-of-pocket expenses.
Dr Marles said a recent report showed in the past 12 months, about 8 per cent of patients who needed to see a GP had delayed or went without the visit because of cost.