A NEW website will publish specialist doctors' fees in an attempt to prevent exorbitant billing.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the searchable website after a ministerial advisory committee found more than one in three patients experienced out-of-pocket costs varying from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.
A report from a Consumer Health Forum survey last year revealed one in four breast cancer patients and a third of respondents with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis had incurred out-of-pocket costs of more than $10,000.
National Seniors Australia chief advocate Ian Henschke said a survey of its members had established their biggest worry was out-of-pocket expenses for services and procedures not fully reimbursed by Medicare or private health insurance.
While welcoming the commitment to make specialist fees more transparent, Mr Henschke said he wanted to be assured all specialists will be obliged to list their fees on the website. "One of our members told us they had to pay $850 in out-of-pocket costs after receiving their private health insurance rebate just for an initial consultation with a surgeon to have a lump removed.
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Health Minister Greg Hunt said specialists would initially be expected to show their fees on the website to allow patients and GPs to consider costs when determining their choice of specialist.
An education initiative would increase understanding of out-of-pocket costs, highlighting that higher fees did not necessarily mean higher quality of care.
"We will collaborate with clinicians and consumers to get the fee website right, with an initial focus on fees for gynaecology, obstetrics and cancer services," Mr Hunt said.
"Major concerns have been raised about out-of-pocket costs in these areas".
National Seniors also wants to see GPs offer patients alternatives when they refer to specialists.
Too often, GPs make a recommendation to their patients and dont consider the costs involved, Mr Henschke said. It should be standard practice to use this new website in consultation with their patients to identify a specialist who offers the necessary expertise at a price affordable to the patient."
It's all or nothing: AMA
The Australian Medical Association said the proposed website would do nothing to inform patients of their likely out-of-pocket costs unless Medicare and private health funds also come to the party.
While the AMA supports full transparency of doctors' fees, its president Tony Bartone said that transparency must extend to the size of the MBS rebate and the private health insurance contribution.
Dr Bartone said health funds argued the complexity of their many policies made it unworkable for them to provide their rebates for a comparison website.
"Each insurer sets the rebate amount that they are willing to pay. If the insurers rebate is low, the out-of-pocket cost to their customer will be high.
"Even when a doctor charges the same fee every time, and even when the patient has good private health coverage, out-of-pocket costs can vary by thousands of dollars because of the variation in what the insurer chooses to pay as a rebate.
"A website that does not have the full information is not in anyone's interests."